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Lawsuit: Cruise Employee Sexually Assaulted 11-Year-Old, Used Master Key to Enter Room

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An 11-year-old Arizona girl was alone in her family's stateroom aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line Spirit last June when a steward walked through the door. Her parents had told the 27-year-old man that she was resting and shouldn't be disturbed. Instead, he used a master key to let himself in, offered to teach the girl how to fold the towels to look like animals, and struck up an inappropriate conversation with her.

By the time her parents returned about an hour later, the steward had climbed on top of the girl and sexually assaulted her, then demanded she keep quiet, according to a recently filed federal lawsuit. The nightmare continued when the girl, given the alias Janie Doe in court records, reported the incident alongside her mother, identified only as Jane Doe. The family says the girl was questioned for hours by an all-male staff that refused to let her leave.

"At approximately 1 a.m., exhausted, humiliated and having been interrogated for more than three-and-a-half hours and after having asked on several occasions if they could leave, Jane Doe demanded at the top of her lungs that they be allowed to leave the ship's infirmary," says the complaint, filed last month in the Southern District of Florida. "Then and only then, did NCL's officers allow Jane Doe and her daughter Janie Doe to leave."

Norwegian Cruise Line, which is based in Miami, declined to comment on the alleged incident, citing the pending litigation. But Janie's story comes on the heels of a New Times investigation that found sexual assault is by far the most frequently reported crime on cruise ships. Moreover, victims are left to report the incident to cruise line workers rather than impartial law enforcement officers, and ship employees are often motivated to protect their employer. It can be days before police are able to investigate.

Although cruise lines market themselves as family-friendly, some maritime attorneys say sexual predators capitalize on the fact that parents may be more laid-back on vacation. Keith S. Brais, the Miami lawyer representing Janie Doe and her mother, says in the complaint that despite NCL's marketing to families, the cruise line "fails to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of children in cabins."

Employees are not properly screened or trained, the lawsuit says, yet they are given carte-blanche access, through master keys, to staterooms rented by families with children.

In Janie's case, there was no way of preventing unwanted entry. According to the suit, her room had no working deadbolt or chain lock. The steward, identified only as Clifford, burst in without knocking, claiming he was delivering laundry. He left and returned moments later, bringing up towel animals in an attempt to "groom" the girl as his victim, the complaint alleges.

Clifford left and came back a third time, this time picking Janie up and kissing her before exiting again. On his fourth visit, he lay on top of her and "began forcibly engaging" in sexual contact with her. When she told him to stop, he demanded she keep the assault secret.

Janie and her mother reported the offense that evening. Around 9:30 p.m., they were sent to the ship's infirmary, where the staff captain, head of security, and doctor questioned the girl. What unfolded there only added to the trauma, the complaint says: The three demanded Janie remove all of her clothes and submit to an examination. The girl and her mother asked to leave multiple times before they were finally released.

The ordeal left Janie with "physical, emotional, and psychological injuries" requiring medical treatment, the complaint says. The suit accuses Norwegian of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and asks a judge to award unspecified damages to Janie and her family.

Norwegian has not yet formally responded in court.

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