A MILITARY culture that allows rampant sexual abuse to persist won’t change on its own. Congress must take immediate steps to protect American service members from this shameful epidemic.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense announced 3,374 military members reported being raped or sexually abused within a one-year period that ended in September 2012. Within that same time frame, a separate confidential survey of 108,000 active-duty service members led researchers to estimate there were about 26,000 victims in all — a 35 percent spike from the previous year.

The vast majority of crimes go unreported. Though women are at the greatest risk of abuse, more men are assaulted because they make up a vast majority of the armed forces.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.,
is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow military lawyers to counsel victims, prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees, and move cases to a general court martial or “next superior competent authority when there is a conflict of interest within the victim’s immediate chain of command.”

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Victims advocates say that last provision lacks clarity and too many commanders have shown a pattern of ignoring complaints or even overturning verdicts on sexual-assault convictions.

Murray’s bill overall is good, but it could go even further. Because of documented assaults by trainers and commanders — and other questionable incidents including the recent arrest of the U.S. Air Force’s top sexual-abuse-prevention official for allegedly groping a woman — advocates argue abuse victims should be able to bypass their leaders and report crimes to someone outside their unit.

Tuesday’s sobering report does not break down statistics by state, but Washington is home to several bases and thousands of service members.

Brave men and women sign up to protect their country. They should not live in fear of being attacked by their own.

Congress must tighten the rules. Military leadership must enforce them. Failure to protect their own ranks from pervasive sexual abuse will create lasting damage.