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Harassment Issue Won't Go Away for the Navy

March 01, 1995|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — On a summer afternoon one Sunday in the Pentagon, Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Mary Catherine Murphy was discussing her work performance with her commanding officer.

"The only performance I will rank you on is in bed," Murphy alleges the officer told her out of the blue. She said he added later, "If you don't give me what I want, I'll destroy your career."

In the aftermath of the Tailhook scandal, when a gantlet of Navy aviators groped and fondled women at a 1991 convention in Las Vegas, the Navy has promised "zero tolerance" of sexual harassment.

But don't tell that to Murphy, who in the 20 months since that Sunday has been fighting through the military justice system to restore her 15-year Navy career.

A compact, 49-year-old woman with a doctorate in literature who says she can do more pullups than most men her age and ride a horse for 100 miles, Murphy is, by her own description, "no shrinking violet."

"I'm assertive. I'm an endurance rider. I'm not a lightweight. I'm an intelligent person and a hard worker. I have been wronged," she said. The officer she has charged has denied the allegations.

The Navy has conducted two investigations but made no decision despite evidence Murphy has presented that her commanding officer, after learning that she had told others about the alleged incident, downgraded her fitness report--the all-important document that determines one's chances for promotion in the military.

On Thursday, after repeated press inquiries about the case, the Navy informed Murphy that it is removing the fitness report from her record while it undertakes yet another investigation. But no action has been taken against the officer, who after being charged was given a new reserve command in the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, Murphy said, she has been subjected to character assassination, threatened at one point with court martial and "put out to pasture" by being reassigned to reserve duty in Baltimore without the new training required for promotion.

But Murphy, an ex-New Yorker who even in a civilian suit and pearls carries herself like an officer, is not the sort of person who gives up easily.

So far, she has spent $35,000 on private lawyers trying to prove her case. The military's strategy, she says, seems to be to make her wait until she runs out of money or patience.

"I may never get anything from this. I may lose my retirement pay. But I could never live with myself if I didn't do it," she said.

Murphy is not alone in complaining about a system of military justice that sometimes seems to penalize the accuser more than the accused.

"The military says to you, if you are harassed, report it, you will not be punished. But women are finding they can become re-victimized," said Karen Johnson, national secretary of the National Organization for Women.

Johnson, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, said at least three other Navy reservists and three active-duty officers are still awaiting what she called an "adequate response" to sexual-harassment charges more than a year after they were filed.

Cmdr. Steve Pietrpaoli, a Navy spokesman, said the service has made progress on sexual harassment since Tailhook, which, he said, "hit us like a 2-by-4 between the eyes."

He said the number of substantiated harassment cases--which rose sharply after Tailhook as women became less fearful about coming forward--dropped from 318 in the year of the scandal to 165 in the year that ended Oct. 1. Since March, 1992, 110 officers and enlisted men have been discharged for such offenses.

Although much lampooned when it was issued last year, a color-coded pamphlet specifying zones for interpersonal behavior--red for stop, yellow for caution, green for go--has helped prevent incidents, Pietrpaoli said. Nearly 2,000 servicemen, more than half from the Navy, have also availed themselves of a sexual-harassment advice line.

All this is cold comfort to Murphy.

"The Navy will never change its attitude and behavior . . . if the officer responsible is permitted to retain command and further his career while the complainant's career is put on hold and she is made an outcast," wrote Murphy's lawyer, Vicki Golden, to Navy Assistant Secretary Bernard Rostker on Friday.

*

According to Murphy's allegations, it was during a discussion of her fitness report on July 25, 1993, that Capt. Charles Cumston Chadbourn III demanded sex and later threatened to destroy her career.

Murphy said she got angry, then scared.

"I felt like I had a very large fish at the end of a very thin line with no barbs on the hook and I had to angle this guy somehow," she said.

Married for 18 years, Murphy said she did not immediately tell her husband about the "sexual part because I was afraid he would go hurt the guy." She did tell her neighbor in rural Virginia, Sybil Humphreys, the next day.

"I remember she was truly, truly upset," Humphreys said. "She felt as though her career was on the line because he had propositioned her."

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