Coast Guard reckons with a years-long coverup of sexual abuse in report
The Washington Post December 6, 2023
An extensive, years-long coverup of sexual abuse allegations at the prestigious U.S. Coast Guard Academy underscores that “change is necessary,” officials determined after an internal review, released Wednesday, affirmed revelations that senior leaders worked to downplay the prevalence of such crimes and shield the institution from public scrutiny.
The findings are detailed in a report that concludes the Coast Guard has created an environment where trust in leadership is “eroding” and “too many” personnel lack a safe workplace. It recommends sweeping changes to how service members are held accountable for not only sexual assaults, but also harassment, inappropriate jokes, and other abusive or demeaning behavior.
“Every Coast Guard member must adhere to our core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty at all times,” the service’s top officer, Adm. Linda Fagan, said in memo released alongside the report.
The admiral, in messages posted to the website X, added that “acknowledging broken trust ... is an important first step in reestablishing it.” She said, too, that at her direction the service will implement nearly three dozen “initial actions” targeting problems with “harassment, hazing, bullying, hate, and retaliation.” Those measures will include new workforce training initiatives and prevention programs.
Fagan, the first woman to lead a military service in the United States, ordered the review after CNN detailed in June how former senior Coast Guard officials had buried the revelations of a separate inquiry into dozens of sexual assault complaints at the academy in New London, Conn., most of which resulted in no punitive action.
A report associated with that inquiry was completed in 2020 during the tenure of Fagan’s predecessor, Adm. Karl Schultz, but remained secret during Fagan’s first year as the service’s commandant, Coast Guard officials later acknowledged. Fagan apologized to lawmakers in July for not making Congress aware of the findings.
Schultz has not commented publicly about the scandal and did not respond Wednesday to voicemail and text messages requesting comment.
In the 2020 report, officials said an investigation, code-named Fouled Anchor, was opened in 2014 after an unidentified officer disclosed she was raped in 1997. The inquiry eventually expanded to examine allegations made against 43 people. It uncovered a “disturbing pattern” in which service leaders favored conducting administrative reviews of the claims, rather than criminal investigations, and said that in 33 of the 43 cases no action was taken.
Coast Guard officials said in their findings released Wednesday that they visited installations nationwide as part of the review ordered by Fagan.
“You made it very clear to our team that these failures and lack of accountability are entirely unacceptable, and you let us know the Coast Guard must do something about it,” senior officials involved in the review wrote.
Those most likely to experience “improper conduct” were 18 to 21 years old, the report said. The majority of alleged offenders were higher in rank than the victims.
The Coast Guard on Wednesday also released a 2015 report that details pervasive problems with sexual harassment and support for victims of assault.
“Based on interviews, the Coast Guard has allowed perpetrators ... to escape accountability and instead resign, retire, or transfer,” according to one finding in what service officials now call the “Culture of Respect” report.
The 2015 report says that rank-and-file personnel perceived that consequences varied for inappropriate or abusive behavior, depending on one’s rank and whether an individual accused of wrongdoing was considered a high performer. Participants told Coast Guard investigators that “leaders focus on the positive performance rather than the violation and, in essence, brush the problems ‘under the rug.’”
K. Denise Rucker Krepp, a former Coast Guard officer, said she has been unsatisfied with the actions taken by the service thus far. Fagan, she said, has the ability to recall senior officers, such as Schultz and Adm. Charles Ray, the service’s vice commandant from spring 2018 to spring 2021, and discipline them. Ray did not return a message left for him at the Institute for Defense and Business, where he is now a fellow.
Krepp said she pressed the issue with Fagan last month during a gathering billed as a “community healing event” in Arlington, Va. There’s no indication, she added, that any officers will be held accountable for withholding the Fouled Anchor report from Congress and the public.
“It was awful. Awful,” Krepp said in a phone interview, describing the event. “Women were following me into the bathroom to tell me their rape stories.”
The issue will be scrutinized on Capitol Hill again next week. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing for its subcommittee on investigations titled “Coast Guard Academy whistleblowers: Stories of sexual assault and harassment.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.