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Lawmakers push cruise-safety bill

The measure includes requiring cruise lines to install peepholes on cabin doors and report crimes at sea to U.S. agencies.

March 13, 2009|Kimi Yoshino

Just days after FBI agents boarded a Princess Cruises ship in Los Angeles and booked a head waiter on suspicion of rape, lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday that would require cruise lines to report crimes at sea, improve ship safety and employ doctors trained in assault examinations.

The $38-billion cruise industry has faced criticism in recent years for a series of high-profile cases involving missing passengers, sexual attacks and so-called "sick ships." Until now, however, cruise lines have largely skirted federal oversight. Most ships are registered in foreign countries and companies are not required to pay income tax or comply with U.S. labor laws.

Under the proposed law, which was introduced by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), cruise ships would be required to install security latches and peepholes in cabin doors and raise the height of guard rails to 54 inches. Cruise lines would also be required to report specific crimes to the FBI and Coast Guard, even if they occurred in international waters. Ship physicians would also have to be U.S.-licensed and trained in sexual assault examinations.

"Any person who goes on a cruise ship should feel as safe as they can be," Matsui said. "We want to ensure that it really is safe."

Matsui called for congressional hearings in 2007 after being told by a constituent that she had been raped aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. Matsui said the legislation was needed, in part, because the industry has resisted making changes. Initially, Matsui said, cruise lines told her that "for something as simple as a peephole, it couldn't be done."

The Cruise Lines International Assn. released a statement Thursday saying that passenger safety and security were a top priority and that serious incidents were rare.

"In recent years, Congress has held numerous hearings on this matter," the statement read. "During those proceedings and still today, we remain committed to working with lawmakers to address this important issue."

The industry holds that it is already required by law to report crimes and that it abides by a separate voluntary agreement with the Coast Guard and FBI to report crimes.

But Kendall Carver, president and a founder of International Cruise Victims, said the industry desperately needed more oversight.

"It's just a continuing record," said Carver, whose daughter disappeared during an Alaska cruise in 2004.

"It's the same old story that just keeps on going on and on and on," Carver said. "There was just a rape case in L.A. What's unusual is that they did something. But even then, a woman was raped and it was two days later when the FBI showed up. If that happened here, the police would be at the hospital waiting for the victim."

In the most recent case, a passenger reported being raped by "George from Portugal" on March 6 during a cruise from Florida to Los Angeles aboard the Coral Princess. The woman said she agreed to drinks with the suspect, a head waiter. After sharing a bottle of wine, the man groped her, pushed her into a chair, grabbed her head and forced her to perform oral sex on him, she told the FBI. Jorge Manuel Teixeira was arrested Monday, when the ship returned to port.

The handling of the matter was an improvement over past cases.

Laurie Dishman, who has testified publicly before Congress, said she was raped two years ago on a Royal Caribbean cruise. When Dishman told cruise officials she had been attacked, they suggested that she "control her drinking." When she was examined by the ship's doctor, he gave her two garbage bags and told her to collect her own evidence. Dishman said she, too, was raped by a ship employee. The U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute.

Dishman's experiences prompted Matsui to press for more federal oversight of the cruise industry.

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kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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