By David Martin
(CBS News) America's most powerful military leaders were ordered to Capitol Hill Tuesday to answer for the epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks. They quickly came under fire from the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some members there want to relieve commanders of their power to decide who gets prosecuted in sexual assault cases and who doesn't.
Military leaders: Sexual assault "like a cancer"
Military sexual assaults by the numbers
Female senators lead charge against military sexual assault
With one exception, the senior officers who marched into the committee room were all men.
They all objected to legislation to take the decision to prosecute sexual assault away from commanders in the field. But committee members, including seven women, were ready to take them on.
"Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Gillibrand was referring to the mishandling of sexual assault cases which has left nearly two thirds of the victims feeling they were being retaliated against.
"It was astoundingly ignorant," she said. "He opened it that she didn't get a ride home when she had a chance. Are you freaking kidding me?
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases. They're afraid to report. They think their careers will be over," she said.
One of the most controversial cases is that of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, convicted by a military jury of molesting a female guest in his home. He was kicked out of the Air Force and sentenced to prison, but his commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, threw out the verdict, using a line of reasoning that incensed Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Wilkerson remains in the Air Force but is now under investigation in an unrelated case for fathering a child out of wedlock.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos admitted the military is still playing catch-up on sexual assault.
"We failed in this in the past. It has not been a top priority in the years past, in the decades past. If it was, we wouldn't be here today," he said.
And Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that included him.
"Frankly, I think we probably -- I'll speak for myself. I think I took my eye off the ball a bit," he said.
All the military chiefs insisted this time they really mean it. Or as Sen. Angus King put it, you can't change the culture, without first changing the system.