WASHINGTON — In a stinging rebuke of the military’s efforts to curb sexual assault, members of a Senate panel hammered Defense Department officials on Wednesday for making too little progress in combating the crimes and failing to improve a military justice system that victims described as slow and uncaring.
In a two-part hearing, the panel heard testimony from several victims who said military justice is broken and pushed for Congress to take action to stem the rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment that they said are pervasive in all the service branches.
Pentagon officials said they are taking the problem seriously. ‘‘Sexual assault in the military is not only an abhorrent crime that does enormous harm to the victim, but it is also a virulent attack on the discipline and good order on which military cohesion depends,’’ said Robert Taylor, the Pentagon’s acting general counsel.
‘‘The Air Force has zero tolerance for this offense,’’ added Lieutenant General Richard Harding, the judge advocate general of the Air Force.
But lawmakers pointed to a decision by an Air Force general to reverse a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case as evidence of how the military fails victims who report the crimes. Under military law, a commander who convenes a court-martial is known as the convening authority and has the sole discretion to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences or to reverse a jury’s verdict.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said all the training and all the promises of ‘‘zero tolerance’’ from the witnesses amounted to nothing if a convening authority is the only individual who can decide whether to overturn a case.
Defense chief Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the ruling by Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin to overturn a sex assault conviction against Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
The case is generating support for legislation that would prevent commanding officers from overturning rulings made by judges and juries at courts-martial proceedings.
Gillibrand called the Wilkerson case ‘‘shocking’’ and promised to take a hard look at the military justice system. Nearly 2,500 sexual violence cases in the military services were reported in 2011, but only 240 made it to trial, Gillibrand said.
Wilkerson was found guilty Nov. 2 by a jury of military officers on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault, and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer. The victim was a civilian employee. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service.
Franklin concluded ‘‘that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,’’ Hagel wrote.