May 13, 2011 — -- Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams was forced to sit in the hot seat before Congress this week at a hearing spurred by an ABC News investigation into what critics and rape survivors call the Peace Corps' culture of blaming the victims of sexual assault.
This week's edition of "Brian Ross Investigates" updates the original "20/20" report with new victim interviews, testimony before Congress and a public vow by the Peace Corps' top official to change the way the organization treats women who are sexually assaulted while serving around the globe as volunteers. The Congressman who called for Wednesday's hearing has also proposed new legislation that would mandate reform within the Peace Corps.
Williams had repeatedly declined to speak to ABC News leading up to and following the original "20/20" report, which aired in January. On Wednesday he apologized to victims while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Rest assured, this type of thing, blaming the victim, will not continue in the Peace Corps of today," said Williams.
Among those who testified on the Hill Wednesday was former volunteer Jess Smochek, who first told her story on 20/20. Smochek told "Brian Ross Investigates" that going public with the circumstances of her gang rape in Bangladesh in 2004, first to ABC News and then before Congress, has made her feel "a lot stronger." "It has brought out an inner strength in me that I didn't really have since the Peace Corps and since what happened," said Smochek.
Smochek said that after she was assaulted, she was told by Peace Corps officials to keep it a secret, and then blamed by officials in Bangladesh and in D.C. for bringing on the attack.
Smochek told "Brian Ross Investigates" she has taken on an activist role to fight for Peace Corps reform since going public on "20/20."
Smochek says she feels the hearing was an excellent start to reforming the Peace Corps, but that given the frequent turnover of staff -- five years is the maximum term for any position in the organization -- there is no way to ensure change without a mandate by law.
"Legislation is the only way we can ensure that the Peace Corps is held accountable," said Smochek.
Rep.Ted Poe, R-Texas, who originally called for the hearing after watching the 20/20 report, has already drafted a new Peace Corps reform bill. The legislation would mandate comprehensive and up-to-date training of volunteers and staff on sexual assault prevention, and streamline sexual assault response protocols at programs around the world. Poe is expected to formally introduce the bill this month.
A Harvard Professor's Secret Revealed
Another victim who testified Wednesday was Karestan Koenen, who was raped in Niger in 1991. Koenen, who also appears on this week's episode of "Brian Ross Investigates," said she felt that the way the Peace Corps treated her after the assault was worse than the actual rape.
Koenen contacted ABC News to talk about the 1991 assault, and the Peace Corps' response, which "felt like someone had just kicked me in the stomach," after watching the "20/20" report in January. She had never told her story publicly before.
"What horrified me was that nothing has changed in 20 years," Koenen told ABC News. "I felt like I really had no choice but to come forward."
The ABC News interview with Koenen aired on "Good Morning America" hours before she took the stand in Washington, D.C.
Koenen told Congress that the way the Peace Corps treated her after she was attacked made her feel like it was her fault and was "incredibly damaging."
"Peace Corps failed time and time again to protect us. We need the help of Congress," she told Congress on Wednesday.
Peace Corps Director Williams, who testified after Smochek, Koenen and other victims, acknowledged his organization's failure to respond appropriately to the victims. Williams said he would immediately replace a training tape currently in use at 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.
Osama bin Laden's Diary and The Real Housewives of Abbottabad
This week's "Brian Ross Investigates" show also looks at the materials found in Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after he was killed by Navy SEALS earlier this month. Among the items seized was a diary that reveals his sordid plans to kill as many Americans as possible.
Bin Laden's writings were discovered in his compound both in a written journal, and on computer flash drives.
U.S. officials said that in his writings, the former al-Qaeda leader urged his followers to find targets beyond New York, to strike smaller cities, and find ways to kill as many Americans as possible in single, coordinated attacks.On this week's show, former White House counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, now an ABC News consultant, said that the U.S. is "much safer" with bin Laden dead rather than in custody."If we had him in custody, it would be a complete media circus. It would be a security problem, where do we try him? It would also be the threat of them taking hostages, American hostages, to trade for bin Laden," said Clarke.U.S. officials continue to sort through the materials seized at the compound. In what appears to be a sign that the Pakistani government is trying to make things right, a U.S. official said Pakistan might soon allow American officials access to the wives of Bin laden. These women are said to have been fiercely loyal to their husband and willing to do anything Bin Laden wanted. The women could provide details of their lives as "The Real Housewives of Abbottabad."
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