By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army is failing to deal with sexual assault in its ranks because too many soldiers in positions of authority do not think there is a problem, the Army chief of staff told a summit of leaders called to address the issue.
General Ray Odierno told a gathering of officials in the Army's Sexual Harassment, Assault Response and Prevention program that when he travels to different bases and speaks to smaller units, he finds too many sergeants, lieutenants and captains who say they do not have a sex assault problem.
"That's baloney," he said. "That's the problem. We're not seeing ourselves."
Some think because they are in an all-male unit, they don't have a sexual assault problem, Odierno said.
"That's not right," he said. "In fact, you probably have some perpetrators, probably have some predators and you probably have some males who have probably been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed."
"We have not been successful in solving this problem," Odierno said. "We have a huge issue. And the main thing I want everybody to understand is that this is not just a passing issue. For whatever reason, this is one that we've had for a very long time. And we have not been able to defeat it."
Odierno's remarks come as the Pentagon is struggling to deal with a big jump in estimated cases of unwanted sexual contact, as well as a spate of high-profile cases of sexual assault, including some involving personnel charged with combating the crime.
An annual Pentagon study released recently estimated that unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
The issue has triggered outrage among lawmakers. Some are pushing legislation to force the military to be more accountable in handling sexual assault cases, and others are seeking to remove responsibility for prosecuting the crimes from the victim's military chain of command.
At the weekend, Odierno and Army Secretary John McHugh suspended the commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Japan, Major General Michael Harrison, due to allegations he failed to properly investigate a sexual assault complaint.
"From the things I see, we still have people out there who tolerate sexual assault and sexual harassment," Odierno told the summit. "Until we solve that problem, it's going to get worse."
He said dealing with the problem meant getting leaders from sergeants to lieutenant colonels to "take this on seriously, because we are not doing that today the way I want us to do it."
"This is important to me. I want to make sure everybody understands that," Odierno said. "I sent a message out that said it's my number one priority right now. And I'm not kidding."
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by David Brunnstrom)