The Catch a Serial Offender Program launched Monday, according to a Pentagon release, with a website for survivors to send in information and find out if their assaults resemble others’ across the military.
“This is a new, confidential way for service members and their adult dependents who have experienced sexual assault, who choose to file restricted reports, to provide information about their incident or alleged offender to military investigators to identify serial sex offenders,” the release said.
Within the DoD system, survivors of sexual assault have two reporting options: an unrestricted report, which triggers a criminal investigation, and a restricted report, which is kept for informational purposes but is never pursued by a command or law enforcement.
Survivors often opt for a restricted report in order to have their assaults documented and receive some recovery services, but avoid the pressure of being a witness in a prosecution. Those reports are kept locally and are shared with DoD for research purposes, but they are private.
With CATCH, a survivor can voluntarily add information from their restricted reports to a national database, where it can be compared against other military law enforcement crime data.
“If the information appears to match with other allegations, the victims will be notified individually by a specially-trained CATCH victim point of contact,” according to the release.
And if the knowledge that their attacker has assaulted someone else motivates them, the survivor can choose to convert their restricted report to an unrestricted report, triggering both an investigation and a host of mental health, legal and other services to help survivors cope.
“We are constantly looking for new ways to empower victims to participate in the military justice process through our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs,” Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, said in the release. “We encourage greater reporting to connect victims with the care they need and as a way to hold offenders appropriately accountable.”
The new system comes at a time when the military is reeling from a reported jump in sexual assaults between 2016 and 2018 ― about 38 percent, according to a biannual survey whose results came out in May.
“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other. This is unacceptable,” then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan wrote in a letter to the department. “We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better.”
In the decade or so since the Pentagon began putting special focus on combating sexual assaults, officials have stressed the importance of making official reports, bumping up against a culture in which retaliation and ostracization have disheartened survivors who did report and discouraged others from speaking up altogether.
According to the 2018 SAPR survey, respondents are feeling increasingly more wary of reporting an assault to their chains of command, fearing not only retaliation, but that their experiences will be diminished or disregarded and the perpetrators unpunished.
The issue came up in multiple confirmation hearings throughout the spring and summer, as officials sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee hoping for promotion to some of the miltary’s top positions.
""I am tired of the statement I get over and over from the chain of command: ‘We got this, Ma’am. We got this,’ " Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told Gen. James McConville, as he prepared to take over as the Army chief of staff. “You don’t have it. You’re failing us. The trajectories of every measurable are going in the wrong direction.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.