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Sexual assaults on cruise ships are rising

by Staff

Sex crimes on cruise ships sailing to and from the United States increased last year, according to numbers released by the Transportation Department.

From January to September 2023, the FBI received 39 reports of sexual assault and 58 reports of rape from passengers. The incidents represent less than 1 percent of the tens of millions of passengers who take cruises each year. However, sexual assaults continue to be the most commonly reported crimes on cruise ships. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, more than two out of three sexual assaults are not reported.

In 2022, there were 87 reported incidents of sexual assault on cruise ships. There were 79 for the first three quarters of 2019, the year before the pandemic shuttered the industry for more than a year. Federal authorities have jurisdiction over certain cruise cases, depending on such factors as the location of the ship at the time of the offense and the nationalities of perpetrators and victims.

The numbers were part of quarterly cruise line incident reports the Transportation Department published last week. Statistics for October through December have not been released. Over that period, the reports listed 16 assaults involving serious bodily injury and 14 thefts of more than $10,000.

Sexual assault on cruises has led to lawsuits in the past. A bartender on a Margaritaville at Sea cruise in May was charged with entering a passenger’s room and having sex with her when she was not capable of consent. He is awaiting sentencing after agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser charge of abusive sexual contact. In a civil suit, a second woman in the room at that time accused the man of raping her, leading to a pregnancy she “was forced to terminate.”

A case reported to the FBI in March, according to court documents, accuses a male crew member on the Carnival Sunrise of raping a 17-year-old girl after approaching her in the fitness center and insisting she needed his help to stretch.

Among the reports submitted by cruise lines from January to September 2023, 76 of the alleged sex crimes were committed by passengers, 17 by crew members and four by “unknown” or “other” parties.

On Carnival Cruise Line, which says it transports more guests than its peers, passengers reported 36 incidents of sexual assault or rape in the first nine months of the year. Royal Caribbean reported 20 incidents, the next-highest number, and Disney Cruise Line reported 15.

Daniel Courtney, a South Florida trial lawyer who has focused on cases against cruise companies in recent years, said the number of sexual assaults on cruises reflects a failure by companies to do more to prevent them.

“Where are we as a society if almost 100 people a year are alleging that they are sexually assaulted or raped on a cruise ship?” Courtney asked.

“Even one assault is too many,” Chris Chiames, chief communications officer for Carnival Cruise Line, wrote in an email responding to questions from The Washington Post.

Chiames went on to describe the scale of the cruise line’s operations: 5.5 million guests sailed last year across a fleet of 26 ships that are based mostly out of U.S. ports. Because the Transportation Department data considers only ships with U.S. home ports, “we are reporting on the operations of a much bigger fleet, more guests and more U.S. operations than any of our competitors,” he wrote.

In cases that Courtney has handled, he said he has seen a pattern of male crew members preying on girls and women between ages 13 and 24. In many of the cases, crew members take guests to an area of the ship where they know they will not be monitored by security cameras.

Courtney said cruise companies could help prevent sexual assaults by increasing surveillance, both by installing more cameras and hiring more security officers. He also takes issue with promotional materials that describe cruises as “safe” for teenagers.

Chiames said Carnival continues “to invest millions of dollars each year in enhanced surveillance cameras in public areas,” but these crimes often occur in guests’ rooms.

In a YouTube video posted ahead of spring break season last year, Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy warns that unruly behavior would not be tolerated and that the company’s ships had increased security. Chiames also noted that “when guests check-in for their safety drill, we also give all parents of teenagers a safety card reminding teens to be aware of their surroundings, not go into a stranger’s stateroom, and use good judgment both on board and offshore.”

The 2023 statistics mark the first time those reports distinguished between sex assault and rape. The Transportation Department began publishing the numbers after Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010. That law requires that passengers have access to a written guide to where to report crimes that occur on a ship, the ability to receive a sexual forensic exam onboard and confidentiality while requesting or receiving support.

The law mandates that eligible cruise lines report missing persons and criminal allegations made onboard to the FBI. Incidents listed on the 2023 reports also include assault with serious bodily injury, setting fire to or tampering with a vessel, thefts in excess of $10,000 and one “suspicious” death.

In a statement sent to The Post, the Cruise Lines International Association industry group said its members face “more robust civil liability” in court under maritime law than do businesses on land, where “the victim must prove the employer negligently hired or retained a known predator.” The association also said that “the transparent public reporting of criminal statistics for cruise ships is unprecedented in other sectors of travel and tourism.”

According to CLIA’s 2023 state of the industry report, an estimated 31.5 million passengers took cruises last year. That represents a 54 percent increase from the previous year’s estimate and is almost 2 million people more than passenger numbers in 2019.

The industry group commissioned a report from criminologist James Alan Fox that presents commercial cruise ships as “exceptionally safe in terms of the risks associated with violent criminal activity.” The report shows rates of violent crimes at sea are much lower than on land.

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