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Sparring over crime at sea

Cruise industry officials tell a House panel of few incidents. Victims demand laws to regulate the business.

September 20, 2007|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Crimes on cruise ships are "remarkably low," a cruise industry official told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday, pointing to a recent five months of incidents reported to the FBI.

But more victims came forward, including a young woman whose attorney said she was raped by a Royal Caribbean crew member who used his keys to enter her cabin while she slept.

The victims emphasized problems with how crimes are handled aboard ships and demanded that laws be passed to regulate the $32-billion cruise business and its massive ships operating under foreign "flags of convenience."

It was the fourth hearing on cruise crimes and follows a March meeting of the House subcommittee in which lawmakers ordered industry executives and victims to work together to improve security measures.

At the time, the FBI, the Coast Guard and the cruise industry announced a voluntary agreement to report serious crimes. That deal was condemned by the advocacy group International Cruise Victims, which called it a last-ditch effort to stave off formal regulation and a repeat of industry promises in the 1990s after a previous spate of bad publicity.

At Wednesday's lengthy hearing, both sides acknowledged that some progress had been made. Still, lawmakers insisted that the industry present another status report in 90 days.

"There's some reaching going on by the industry, but maybe they're not reaching far enough," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation. "More needs to be done."

Industry and law enforcement officials testified that between April 1 and Aug. 24, the FBI received 207 reports of serious crimes, including four missing Americans, 41 sexual assaults and 13 thefts of items valued at more than $10,000. Of the 18 open cases, 13 involve sexual assaults.

Although cruise officials, the FBI and the Coast Guard all said they were satisfied that serious events were being reported, it remained unclear how the public would obtain the information. There are no plans to publish the data on any website. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Wayne Justice said the figures could be obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, which is a lengthy and potentially costly process.

Industry officials said they were committed to improving safety and working with victims.

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Cruise Lines International Assn. announced the formation of a "Survivor Working Group," to be composed of victims or their families, senior-level cruise line executives and representatives of industry groups, who will meet quarterly.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. -- the cruise line that has faced the most scrutiny in part because of high-visibility incidents -- has hired at least two former top FBI officials. One of them, Gary M. Bald, now the company's senior vice president of global security, rattled off several steps the company took in the last six months to improve safety and the treatment of victims.

"Ultimately, this process is not about statistics or even about past incidents, although both are important," Bald said. "It is about preventing even a single negative experience on a cruise ship. This is no small task."

Among the changes, Royal Caribbean is installing peepholes on cabin doors in its two newest ships and working on an existing ship. The company plans to install peepholes on doors of all its ships, a spokesman said.

In addition, Royal Caribbean has hired female investigators and counselors, put suicide hotlines in place and required mandatory sexual harassment training. In January, the company will begin notifying guests of a shipboard policy that crew members are not to fraternize with customers.

Additionally, cameras are being installed in hallways and corridors, though Bald conceded that those cameras were not being monitored.

"We're pleased at the initiatives that Royal Caribbean may be taking; we're disappointed that it has taken so long," said William M. Sullivan Jr., an attorney who testified Wednesday and is representing a 20-year-old woman who said she was raped by a crew member in March. The woman called the ship's 911 line, but the employee who answered did not take her seriously -- and laughed, Sullivan said.

He accused the cruise industry of "ambiguous, amorphous happy talk" and said after the hearing, "There was a lot of dodging and weaving."

His client's alleged rape, which was reported three weeks before the March hearing, would have been preventable with easy fixes, including limiting crew members' access to rooms by taking away their keys at the end of their shifts, Sullivan said.

As Sullivan recounted his client's story, Laurie Dishman, a Sacramento resident who testified in March about her rape on a Royal Caribbean cruise, said, "I just sat there and cried. It was like going through it all over again. I testified that I was hoping there wouldn't be another Laurie Dishman. And now there already is."

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