During a seven-day Royal Caribbean cruise in December 2015, a teenager who had been separated from her family says a group of men got her drunk, lured her into a cabin, and raped her.
A Norwegian Cruise Line employee allegedly used a master key to enter a stateroom and sexually assaulted an 11-year-old girl around the same time.
And in July 2016, a 16-year-old girl says she was sexually assaulted by a fitness instructor on a Carnival ship.
"We keep seeing these crimes over and over," says Jim Walker, a Miami maritime attorney.
For years, sexual assault has been the most frequently reported crime on cruise ships despite cruise lines' attempts to silence victims, hinder investigations, and help perpetrators flee. As first reported by the New York Post, recently published statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation show the Doral-headquartered Carnival Cruise Line tops a list of 12 cruise lines that reported incidents of sexual assault to the FBI from July 1 to September 30.
Carnival, the largest cruise line, has consistently reported the most incidents of sexual assault since at least 2016. Of the 35 sexual assault cases reported by cruise lines for the third quarter of 2019, 20 were reported on Carnival ships. During the same period last year, 21 sexual assaults were reported by cruise lines — 14 by Carnival alone. Since the beginning of the year, 35 of the 79 sexual assaults reported to the FBI came from Carnival.
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen attributes that number to the percentage of U.S. passengers and operations, which fall under federal reporting requirements. The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA), a federal law passed in 2010, established security guidelines for ships that embark and disembark in the United States. The law requires cruise lines to report serious incidents to the FBI, including homicides, missing U.S. nationals, suspicious deaths, thefts of more than $10,000, kidnappings, assaults with bodily injury, vessel tampering, and sexual assaults.
"Nearly 90% of our capacity and operations are from U.S. ports which are covered under the reporting requirements of the CVSSA," Gulliksen said in an emailed statement. "Many of our U.S. competitors sail from Europe and other non-U.S. ports, so they are not mandated to submit CVSSA data as part of the reporting process. In essence, we report a higher number of cruise operations than others because we have a much higher percentage of U.S. operations than others. Not because we have more incidents."
Walker, the maritime attorney, refutes that claim. He says that the statistics don't show "a complete picture" of sex crimes on cruise ships and that the number of incidents reported to the FBI is much higher than what is disclosed.
"There are a lot of things reported by a victim to the cruise line that should be some type of crime, but that doesn't fit the definition," Walker says.
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Several factors dictate whether the FBI has jurisdiction over a sex-crime case on a cruise ship, such as the ship's location when the crime occurred, the nationality of the victim or perpetrator, and the ship's port of entry. Things get murky when crimes are reported out of U.S. waters or when they are committed by or against non-U.S. nationals. Lawsuits against South Florida-based cruise lines such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean would be filed in federal court in Miami. But when it comes to criminal investigation and prosecution, many sex crimes reported on cruise ships, including inappropriate touching, public masturbation, and attempted rape, aren't considered federal sex crimes, according to Walker.
The cruise industry says that it does everything it can to ensure the safety of its passengers and that crimes on the high seas are rare. That might be the case compared to crimes reported on dry land, but maritime lawyers have said a lack of law enforcement on ships and the cruise lines' incentive to protect themselves can mean no justice for victims.
"I think a cruise ship is a perfect place to commit a crime, and a crime that's not likely to be prosecuted," Walker says.
The Miami-based Royal Caribbean, the second-largest cruise line, reported eight sexual assaults on its ships this past July through September and three during the same period last year. Royal Caribbean's 2019 count through September is 25 reported assaults.