Editorial | Was general’s punishment on sex charges tempered by compassion?

The following editorial appeared in the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer on Thursday:

With Brig. Gen. Jeff Sinclair, the Army got the punishment as right as it could. We hope it sends a strong message to others who might use their rank as a cover for sexual predation.

But the message will be stronger if the Pentagon changes its regulations so sympathy for a predator’s family doesn’t dilute punishment.

Sinclair, who pleaded guilty to adultery and 13 other charges in March, will be knocked back two ranks and retired.

As Secretary of the Army John McHugh explained last week, the decision to retire Sinclair as a lieutenant colonel was made because his illegal behavior could be traced to his time as a full colonel. Federal law, McHugh said, requires that “an individual must have served satisfactorily in rank before receiving those benefits. Sinclair displayed a pattern of inappropriate and at times illegal behavior both while serving as a brigadier general and a colonel.”

It is, McHugh said, the first time in a decade that the Army has reduced a general officer by two ranks.

Sinclair’s lawyer, Richard Scheff, said that, “Other senior military leaders who committed the same indiscretions, and worse, have faced far fewer consequences.” That’s unfortunately true. In other cases of sexual or other misconduct, high-ranking officers have been allowed to leave the Army at their current rank, with full retirement benefits, and without a trial.

But public outrage over sexual assaults in the military has led the Pentagon and Congress to adopt a more stern and belatedly appropriate attitude toward what has always been a crime. Winking and covering up the cases, it appears, are no longer tolerated. That’s the way it should have been all along.

But there’s also a culture of compassion at work in what often is little more than wrist-slapping for sexual offenses – as it was in Sinclair’s case. Military prosecutors don’t press harder for more serious charges because a conviction will result in loss of military benefits – like health care – for the perpetrator’s family.

It’s long past time for the Pentagon to address that issue and adjust benefit regulations to protect the families of soldiers who commit serious violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

We’re not sure how much those considerations would have changed the Sinclair verdicts, but it’s clear that they would have in many others. Protecting the families of sexual offenders and others who violate military law will clear the way for more appropriate justice.