Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has pushed for moving the authority to prosecute military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

THE MILITARY’S effort to combat sexual assault in its ranks has been handicapped by the reluctance, even refusal, of victims to come forward and report abuse. Who can blame them given instances in which those who are supposed to be leading the fight against abuse are often themselves guilty of misconduct? If there ever is to be real progress, sexual assault crimes need to be removed from a chain of command that is more inclined to protect than prosecute wrongdoers.

A recent investigation by The Post’s Craig Whitlock uncovered a series of previously undisclosed cases in which soldiers with key roles in the fight against sexual misconduct were accused of using their authority to victimize women under their command. The leader of an Army training institute dedicated to prevention of discrimination and sexual misconduct was accused by seven female employees of inappropriate touching. An Army commander was promoted even as he faced court-martial for sexually harassing and assaulting a female lieutenant on his staff.

The cases call into question how seriously the military takes the fight against sexual assaults. Poor judgment was shown in entrusting responsibilities to prevent and fight sexual abuse, and sexual misbehavior was not treated as a serious offense. “I am concerned about the message it sends to the victims and Soldiers in the unit that he is still in a leadership position, not to mention the impact if the media caught wind,” was the pointed warning that went unheeded about letting the Army commander accused of assault maintain command responsibilities.

Recent years have seen a host of reforms, some spurred by Congress, to address what the Pentagon has acknowledged is a crisis of sexual harassment and worse. These include new legal resources for victims. Reports of sexual assaults are up,which officials say shows that victims are more willing to trust the system. But many women choose not to pursue the charges all the way to trial. That’s due in large measure to the high number of women who say they faced retaliation for filing complaints. Taking sexual crimes out of the chain of command, as advocated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would help fix that problem. Independent units specially trained to deal with these issues would go a long way toward preventing debilitating scandals that undermine the military’s fight against sexual assault and its ability to accomplish its overall mission.