RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson was heavily critical Monday of some of the RCMP members who have come forward with complaints of sexual harassment.

Paulson was the key witness at the Senate committee investigating the problem of sexual harassment within the RCMP.

Paulson did not deny the problem exists in the force. "There are, there have been, and sadly, there may well be other bona fide victims of sexual harassment in the RCMP," he said. Paulson also described listening to what he called "meritorious victims" of harassment, saying he had cried with them and "held hands with women as they were going out the door with tales of horror."

However, Paulson said that Cpl. Pete Merrifield, who told the Senate committee in May he'd seen five supervisors continually harass members, is spearheading a union drive in the force.

He particularly singled out Cpl. Roland Beaulieu, who was prevented from attending a committee hearing unless he agreed to come back to work. Beaulieu has been on sick leave due to work-related stress. Paulson said Beaulieu "alleges" he has post-traumatic stress disorder, but said the RCMP felt that if he was well enough to testify he was well enough to work.

"We understand that he holds down the position of secretary of an upstart union effort in British Columbia," Paulson said. "Just last week, he [Beaulieu] sent me a request for $700,000, or $500,000 tax-free, as he put it, a couple of promotions, some extended pension benefits. In exchange, he says, he'll leave the force. The implicit message I get from this is 'or else.'"

At one point, the chair of the committee, Senator Daniel Lang, stopped Paulson, because the matter of Beaulieu has been raised as a question of privilege. A separate Senate committee is looking into a complaint by the Liberal leader in the Senate, James Cowan, that parliamentary privilege might be violated if a witness is prevented from testifying. The Senate rules committee is hearing the privilege question Tuesday.

Paulson also mentioned Staff Sgt. Caroline O'Farrell, who has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against 13 former colleagues in the force's travelling equestrian show, claiming she was sexually assaulted and harassed as a member of the Musical Ride in the 1980s.

Paulson said the offence "took place 25 years ago. We responded 25 years ago." He added, "It was terrible," and he asked O'Farrell what he could do to help. "She didn't want our help. She would only hand me her statement of claim." Paulson said O'Farrell also told him, "If these matters about the Musical Ride ever get into the public, it would be embarrassing for the RCMP."

In general, Paulson told the committee, "I can't be continually defending against outlandish claims."

Appointed in 2011, Paulson has said his key priority is to eliminate sexual harassment in the force.

Paulson told the committee he has implemented a plan consisting of 37 items to prevent sexual harassment, and he is committed to regularly reporting the benchmarks reached. Every officer, he said, must have a workforce respect program in place.

Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell told Paulson he was struck by how two subordinates had been singled out, and asked what message that sends to anyone who complains. Paulson said he was not being dismissive.

Mitchell also asked about hundreds of cases of harassment, referring to a class-action lawsuit filed in 2012 that claims the RCMP failed to exercise the duty to women in the RCMP so they could work in an environment free of gender-based discrimination, bullying and harassment.

"I don't know of the hundreds of complainants you refer to," answered Paulson. Mitchell said there are 300 cases.

Paulson replied, "It's a game of cat and mouse, in my estimate."

"It's not a game," said Mitchell.

Complaints highlighted in CBC report

In 2011 the issue came to a head when Catherine Galliford, an RCMP corporal and former spokeswoman for the force in B.C., told CBC News about an internal complaint she filed detailing what she says were years of sexual harassment.

"If I had a dime for every time one of my bosses asked me to sit on his knee, I'd be on a yacht in the Bahamas right now," Galliford told the CBC. She said the trouble began as soon as she left police college in 1991 and continued to the point where she went on sick leave in 2007 due to constant stress.

The government has responded by introducing Bill C-42, legislation that would modernize the RCMP and make it easier to fire members Paulson has termed "bad apples."

Galliford has launched a lawsuit against the RCMP on the ground she suffered post-traumatic stress because of harassment that spanned two decades.

Another woman, Janet Merlo, a 19-year RCMP veteran, filed suit for harassment in 2012, and hundreds of current and former female members have joined her in a class-action lawsuit.

On May 27, the Senate committee heard from Cpl. Peter Merrifield, who testified that five of his supervisors have faced serious complaints of sexual harassment. Merrifield himself is suing the RCMP for harassment and breach of his constitutional rights related to what he calls "retaliation" for seeking a Conservative nomination in Barrie, Ont., in 2005.

In 2011, the RCMP public complaints commission launched an investigation into the reports from female Mounties about systemic sexual harassment.

The report looked at 718 harassment complaints filed between 2005 and 2011, representing about 2.5 per cent of all employees at the RCMP.

However, commission chairman Ian McPhail said about 90 per cent of the complaints involved bullying. Only four per cent of the complaints dealt with sexual harassment.

With files from CBC News