Volunteers: US Peace Corps insensitive to rapes

By ALAN FRAM | May 11, 2011 | 4:13 PM EDT

This 2008 image, provided by the Puzey family shows Catherine "Kate" Puzey with a neighbor's child in a sling on her back in Benin, in a November 2008. The head of the Peace Corps is apologizing for a lack of compassion in how the agency responded after a volunteer was murdered and others were raped while serving overseas in recent years. Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams expressed his regrets at a dramatic congressional hearing that also saw three volunteers who were raped, plus the mother of murdered volunteer Catherine "Kate" Puzey of Cumming, Ga., complain about how poorly the agency responded to the crimes. (AP Photo/courtesy of the Puzey family) ** NO SALES **

WASHINGTON (AP) — Three Peace Corps volunteers raped while serving overseas, plus the mother of a fourth who was murdered in Benin, complained to U.S. lawmakers Wednesday about one of the government's most revered agencies.

Their theme was similar: The Peace Corps, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, did little to train its workers about how to avoid or deal with violent attacks. And it reacted insensitively and unhelpfully in the aftermath of the crimes, they said.

"I want the young women who go into the Peace Corps today to be protected," said Carol Marie Clark, who testified Wednesday that she joined the Peace Corps in 1984 at age 22 in Nepal and was raped and impregnated by the program's director there.

"If anything happens to them, I want those women to be treated with compassion and respect," said Clark, now a teacher. "They should be heard, supported and healed, not blamed, reprimanded or ignored."

The women's accounts prompted Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams, appearing at the same hearing, to apologize for neglecting what he called his agency's top priority: the health and safety of its volunteers. He said the agency has already taken steps like writing guidelines about how to respond to sexual crimes, hiring a crime victims' advocate, and consulting with outside groups about additional steps they can take.

"The Peace Corps has not always been sufficiently responsive, compassionate or sensitive to victims of crime and their families," Williams told the House Foreign Relations Committee. "It is heart-breaking to learn, and I apologize for any additional pain the agency has inflicted on our volunteers."

No partisan divides were visible as lawmakers on the committee spoke of pursuing legislation that might take steps like improve training of volunteers and their managers abroad for preventing and responding to crimes.

"Your testimony will change the way business is being done in the Peace Corps," Republican Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the witnesses.

The Associated Press generally does not publish the names of rape victims but the women at Wednesday's hearing testified openly to the committee and used their names freely.

The Peace Corps has sent over 200,000 Americans to serve in 139 countries since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Currently, more than 8,600 volunteers are at work in 77 nations.

According to Peace Corps figures, volunteers reported more than 1,000 sexual assaults from 2000 to 2009, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. A 2010 report by the Peace Corps' inspector general found that when compared to crime statistics gathered by the United Nations from 86 countries, Peace Corps volunteers suffered higher rates of rape and burglary than every nation reporting.

Catherine Lois Puzey told the lawmakers that her daughter, Catherine "Kate" Puzey of Cumming, Georgia, was killed in March 2009 after she complained by email to Peace Corps managers about a local man who worked with the volunteers — who has since been accused of the crime. She said her daughter was given no training in how to handle such problems and that the confidentiality of the email was breached, endangering her.

After her daughter was killed, she said, the Peace Corps notified the family in a phone call that provided no details; shared little information about her death over the next few months; and stopped communicating with them completely after four months. Only the family's persistence and pressure from an investigation by ABC News resulted in them getting more information, she said.