NEWS

Sexual Assaults on Cruise Liners May Be More Frequent Than Previously Reported

By Matthew Harwood

Victims rights advocates and an industry expert called on Congress today to hold the cruise industry more accountable for reporting crime on its ships, especially sexual assaults. An industry representative, meanwhile, assured lawmakers that Americans onboard cruise liners are safer than they would be on land.

Ross A. Klein, an author and expert on the cruise industry, testified that the industry routinely tries to minimize any incidents of sexual assault that occur on board their ships for fear it will hurt business.

"But the fact is that sexual assaults have been recognized as an ongoing problem on cruise ships for decades," he said before a hearing of the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Terry Dale, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), told lawmakers there is less than a .01 percent chance someone on board a cruise ship would become a victim of sexual assault.

Klein, however, accused the industry of skewing its statistics. The industry's stated .01 percent probability of crime is now based on the total number of passengers industry-wide per year, not the number of passengers on one given day. The new method is "not conventionally accepted as a means for reflecting crime rates," he said.

Crime rates on cruise ships vary across different types of cruises.

"Shorter cruises often attract a different type of passenger than cruises lasting a week or more," Klein said. "Those on over-weekend mini-cruise my drink more and take greater part in the night life ... They risk becoming more vulnerable to crewmembers or other passengers."

Cruise ships are expected to report any crimes involving U.S. citizens to the FBI, which holds jurisdiction. Yet the number of sexual assaults onboard cruise ships is probably much higher than statistics show, said Evelyn Fortier, vice president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, citing three reasons: first, there is no way to assess whether cruise lines are fully and accurately reporting sexual assaults on their vessels; second, sexual assaults, whether on land or sea, are historically underreported; and third, the fear of losing customers provides incentives for cruise lines to underreport or misclassify sexual assaults.

Even when sexual assaults are immediately reported, victims run into problems unique to cruise ships.

"Because most cruise ships are foreign-flagged vessels, because the perpetrator may be a foreign national, and because you may be in international waters when the assault occurs, you face a host of legal uncertainties," Fortier said. "For example, you cannot automatically assume that certain laws will cover the incident, due to messy jurisdictional issues that arise in some of these cases."

Witness Kendall Carver's daughter disappeared from a Royal Caribbean cruise in 2004, and alleges the cruise line covered up his daughter's disappearance. Now president of International Cruise Victims (ICV) Carver testified that FBI officials told him the agency lacks the resources to investigate crimes at sea that are reported to them.

Cruise lines are not required to investigate onboard crimes, nor do they have the resources to do so, Carver said. Further, potential crime scenes are typically contaminated before any government agency could investigate them at port.

Carver, Klein, and Fortier called on the federal government to mandate public reporting of all crimes or disappearances that occur while onboard their vessels. The House recently passed an amendment to the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act that would do just that; it awaits Senate approval.

Last month, Mindy Jordan, a 46-year-old mother of two from Pine Hills, New Jersey, disappeared from a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship headed to the Atlantic island of Bermuda.

"When her family tried desperately to find out what had happened to her, the cruise line referred them to the claims department," said committee chairman Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).

Dale apologized for his industry's handling of prior incidents. "Our care and compassion in the past toward those who have suffered injury and loss has not always been satisfactory," he said.

Nevertheless, Dale insisted cruises are safe and follow the latest security practices such as cargo and passenger screening, biometric verification of passengers and crew, and submission of electronic passenger and crew lists to U.S. authorities. Each cruise is staffed with a qualified security officer, while every company employs a supervisory security officer to manage fleet security and train security officers.

"Independent surveys show that the vast majority of cruise passengers, 95 percent, say they are very satisfied with their cruising experience," he said. "I submit this would not be the case if safety or security were perceived as a serious problem."

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