Peace Corps Promises to Stop Blaming Victims of Sex Assault

PHOTO Maryland 28-year-old Jess Smochek, left, was gang raped in Bangladesh by a group of young men after she says Peace Corps officials in the country ignored her pleas to re-locate her. She?s pictured here with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer
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After emotional testimony from several former Peace Corps volunteers who were victims of sexual assault abroad, the agency's director promised Congressional lawmakers big changes in the Peace Corps' handling of sex assault cases including putting an end to the practice of "blaming the victim."

"There is no doubt that what these courageous women have done has opened our eyes to what we need to correct and we need to correct it now," Peace Corps director Aaron Williams said. "Rest assured, this type of thing, blaming the victim, will not continue in the Peace Corps of today."

Williams said he would also immediately replace a training tape currently in use at the Peace Corps and obtained by ABC News in which some other victims of sexual assault appear on camera to describe what they had supposedly done wrong to bring on attacks.

WATCH Part One of the "20/20" Peace Corps report.

Williams spoke before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., after several female former Peace Corps volunteers told the committee members that not only were they inadequately trained to deal with dangerous situations in the countries to which the Peace Corps had assigned them, but were virtually ignored by the Peace Corps when they tried to report the horrifying crimes against them.

One victim, Jess Smochek, told members of Congress that after she had been brutally gang-raped by several men in Bangladesh in 2002, a Peace Corps medical officer refused to examine her and instead took away her cell phone so she could not call fellow volunteers. Before she returned to the U.S., she said she was instructed to tell fellow volunteers that she had to return to have her wisdom teeth taken out. When she arrived at Washington, D.C., she said she saw a Peace Corps official who made her write down everything she had supposedly done wrong to cause the attack.

"Rather than feeling safe and supported, I felt belittled and betrayed," Smochek said. "[Then] shortly after I left, the country director, without my permission told the female volunteers I was raped, that it was my fault and that it was always the woman's fault... The Peace Corps must change. Women must be protected from rape and the callous treatment that too often follows."

WATCH Part Two of the "20/20" Peace Corps report.

In his testimony, Williams said the Peace Corps "without a doubt" would be open to legislation mandating several reforms the agency was already undertaking on its own including a revamped training program for volunteers and staff, the inclusion of a victim advocate staff, continued support for volunteers after they leave the Peace Corps and enforced protection for whistleblowers.

The hearings came after an ABC News investigation that revealed that hundreds of female Peace Corps volunteers had been raped or sexually abused overseas, with many claiming the Peace Corps then blamed them for what happened and forced them to quit. Two of the women who testified said they were moved to tell their stories in public for the first time after seeing the ABC News reports on "Good Morning America" and "20/20" and deciding they could keep silent no longer.

Director Williams repeatedly denied requests for an interview with ABC News.

WATCH Part Three of the "20/20" Peace Corps report.

READ: Harvard Professor Keeps Rape Secret Until ABC News Report on Peace Corps Sexual Assaults

Murdered Volunteer's Mom Pleads for Change

The hearing also featured testimony from Lois Puzey, the mother of Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey who was murdered in Benin, Africa in 2009.

Kate had attempted to alert the Peace Corps to a local teacher, who worked part time with the Peace Corps, who was accused of sexually assaulting his students. She attempted to send an email to her superiors, but instead the email and compromising information ended up in the hands of the teacher's brother. Days later, Kate was dead.

"Tragically, the way that Kate's email was handled eventually led to her death... Kate was the heart of our family and our lives have been shattered," Lois Puzey said before pausing to gather herself. Lois Puzey said the Peace Corps refused to provide her family with information on her daughter's death and stopped communication altogether after four months. Two months after that, she said, a FedEx box appeared unaccompanied on their driveway, full of Kate's things from Benin.

Lois Puzey said the Peace Corps has never acknowledged the role they may have played in Kate's death and said, "had ABC's '20/20' not investigated her murder, we would not have heard from them."

Puzey also reminded Congress that a bill from 2007 would have provided some whistleblower protections, but it was not passed.

"If you had passed it, there's a possibility my daughter would still be alive," she told members of Congress. "Honor Kate's sacrifice by doing the right thing now."

Blaming the Victim

Former Peace Corps volunteer Carol Clark, who also testified today, said she too was made to feel responsible for her own rape when she reported what had happened to her in Nepal in 1985. A Peace Corps counselor asked her to list the things she had done to put herself in danger, and what she could have done to prevent the rape. Clark also said the counselor chided her for being late to the meeting, calling it a sign of her irresponsible nature.

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Clark says she was overwhelmed with frustration that she was blamed for being raped, and said the blame still stings 25 years later.

That same sense of feeling blamed is what former Peace Corps volunteers described in the original ABC News report.

Jill Hoxmeier, who was assaulted in the South American country of Guyana in 2007, said that because of the limited counseling and support she got after she was attacked, "It was too hard to navigate by myself and so I just gave up."

WATCH an interview with survivors of sexual assault.

READ full coverage of violence against women in the Peace Corps

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ABC News' Mark Schone, Lee Ferran, Hanna Siegel and Randy Kreider contributed to this report.

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