By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three U.S. Naval Academy football players have been charged with raping a female midshipman and making false statements, the school said on Wednesday, the latest in a string of sexual assault allegations in the U.S. military.
The midshipmen will face an Article 32 proceeding, similar to a preliminary hearing in civilian law. The hearing will kick off a process similar to a grand jury to determine if a general court-martial is warranted.
"This case is still in the pre-trial phase, so any further comment on this ongoing investigation would be inappropriate," said John Schofield, a spokesman for the academy.
Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Michael Miller reviewed the probe carried out by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and approved seeking the charges, the academy said.
The investigation was touched off by allegations of an incident at an off-campus party in April 2012 in Annapolis, Maryland, site of the elite school. The woman's attorney, Susan Burke, has said her client got drunk at the party and passed out.
"She woke up at the football house the next morning with little recall of what had occurred. She learned from friends and social media that three football players were claiming to have had sexual intercourse with her while she was incapacitated," Burke said in a statement late last month.
Burke said one of the football players pressured the woman not to cooperate with an initial investigation. She followed the advice but was "ostracized and retaliated against by the football players and the Naval Academy community," she said.
The woman was also disciplined for drinking. She sought legal help in early 2013 and the Navy reopened the investigation, Burke said.
Naval Academy students are known as "midshipmen." Reuters generally does not publish the names of sexual assault victims.
The charges come amid a spate of high-profile military sexual assault cases, including some involving personnel whose jobs were to prevent sexual abuse.
An annual Pentagon study last month estimated that unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases.
President Barack Obama spoke at the Naval Academy's graduation ceremony on May 24 and urged the new officers to stamp out sexual assault among their ranks.
The wave of sex-related incidents has embarrassed the U.S. armed forces and prompted members of Congress to introduce legislation to toughen the Pentagon's handling of sex crimes.
A U.S. Senate panel last week backed draft legislation that would let prosecutors, rather than a victim's commander, decide if a sex offense should go to trial.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and military service chiefs have opposed taking sexual assault prosecution decisions out of the chain of command.
(Additional reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)
[Stock photo of Navy sailors via Anthony Correia / Shutterstock.com]