Ombudsman seeks additional powers for military sexual harassment complaints

The Defense Forces Ombudsman is seeking new powers to deal with complaints of sexual harassment in the military such as those raised by the group Women of Honor.

The Women of Honour, a group of retired military personnel, detailed allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination in an RTÉ radio documentary last year.

Appearing before a panel of the Oireachtas on Thursday, Defense Force Ombudsman Judge Alan Mahon said he had received very few complaints that amounted to bullying, harassment or sexual harassment.

However, he said many such complaints would not fall under his jurisdiction anyway, due to the narrow terms applied to his office by the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Act 2004.

The law allows Judge Mahon, who took office in 2018 after retiring from the Court of Appeals, to investigate allegations relating to areas such as discrimination and neglect.

Discrimination by sex

He said this included gender discrimination, such as a female soldier being denied a career opportunity due to pregnancy, but not sexual harassment or similar issues.

He said the issues raised by the women of honor group were “basically issues that I don’t have a lot of experience with.”

This may be related to the historical nature of some of the allegations, Judge Mahon said. The law provides for a period of 12 months to file a complaint with the Ombudsman.

He said he expected allegations of sexual harassment and bullying to increase due to recent publicity and would like increased jurisdiction to deal with it.

Judge Mahon told the Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions that he had asked Defense Minister Simon Coveney to consider changing the law to allow him to investigate “certain types of interpersonal complaints, such as , for example, inappropriate behavior, sexual abuse and sexual harassment”.

Proactive investigations

It also asks for the power to launch investigations on its own initiative, in cases where no specific complaint has been received.

“Such power, which I believe would be used sparingly, would benefit Defense Force personnel, and the Defense Force as a whole.

“This would allow the ombudsman to proactively target investigative issues, independent of any particular complaint. An example might be an investigation of a problem that repeatedly arises in individual complaints or of systemic failings in administration.

Judge Mahon said he would also like to see an amendment to the 12-month time limit for filing a complaint, which would allow him to exercise his discretion in certain circumstances.

Since 2018, the judge has handled 163 complaints from members of the Defense Force, most of which related to complaints about promotions, tuition or “general maladministration”.

There was an increase in bullying complaints in 2020, but this was not repeated in 2021.

Judge Mahon also noted an increase in complaints from officers since 2019. Such complaints were very rare, he said.

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