While vacationing on a cruise ship, the last thing you want to think about is being a victim of crime. Often, crimes at sea go unreported, covered up or off public record. Our investigative reporter, Elyce Kirchner, has spent several months uncovering the truth. She has the sobering results. This story was published March 27, 2012, at 12:02 a.m.
Vacationing on a cruise ship, the last thing you think about is being a victim of crime. But crime at sea may be happening more than you imagine.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found that it is difficult to get a complete picture of how safe passengers actually are on board.
Sacramento resident Laurie Dishman agrees.
In February 2006, Dishman and a friend went on a cruise to celebrate 30 years of friendship.
“We wanted to go and have fun,” she said.
But she says that’s not what happened. Dishman claims she was raped onboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. Her alleged attacker was a male crew member. After it reportedly happened all she could think about was getting back on land.
“I just wanted to go home,” she said. “I just kept saying that over and over.”
Once the ship docked the FBI launched an investigation, but ultimately the government decided not to prosecute.
In a statement Royal Caribbean told us that based on the FBI investigation, no arrests were made and no one was charged with a crime.
The company also told us, “While we at Royal Caribbean strive to meet the high standards we set for ourselves, we acknowledge that we could have done better in our response to the Dishman incident. However, since 2006, Royal Caribbean has significantly enhanced the company's policies and procedures to prevent and effectively respond to security incidents."
Dishman took legal action against the cruise line and settled out of court. However, because no arrests were made and the crewmember was not charged with any crime, the alleged rape was never reported in crime statistics.
“Sexual assaults on cruise ships are more common than the cruise industry would like us to believe,” said industry critic Ross Klein.
He has collected and reported crime data from cruise ships for nearly two decades and has also served as an expert witness in cases against various cruise lines. Klein recently testified during congressional cruise ship safety hearings about his research.
“I’ve seen victimization of women in their 50s, 60s 70s, and women in their 30s,” he told us. “It’s almost when there is an opportunity, there is a possibility of an assault.”
Congresswoman Doris Matsui also recognizes that there may be a problem with crime on board cruise ships.
“The more I delve into it the more I realize there is a darker side,” she said, “and it was important to bring that to the light.”
The democratic representative from Sacramento was motivated by Dishman’s story to take action in Washington.
Matsui authored the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, which requires cruise liners to report all crimes to the FBI. In turn, the agency makes those statistics public on the United States Coast Guard website.
However, only incidents that are investigated—and closed—by the FBI are now included in cruise ship crime statistics.
Matsui told NBC Bay Area investigative reporter Elyce Kirchner that wasn’t the original intent of the law.
“They are only reporting the closed cases,” Matsui said. “So like last year, there’s only 16. There’s many more open cases than that.”
“How many more?” Kirchner asked the congresswoman.
“We don’t know,” Matsui answered.
Since the law went into effect, the FBI reported 28 cases of sexual assault for the entire year of 2010.
During the last six months of 2011, just three cases of sexual assault were made public.
Klein says there are many more, and points to his research from previous years as evidence.
From October 2007 through September 2008, he documented at least 150 cases of sexual assault, sexual contact and sexual harassment on board cruise ships. The data was obtained through filling Freedom of Information Act requests to the FBI.
The International Cruise Victims Association also says it gets inundated with calls and emails about crime at sea. Some detail violent attacks on passengers and even cases of child molestation.
We reached out to the FBI numerous times by email and by phone, but the agency said its policy is not to comment on how it enforces the law.
As for the cruise industry, Dishman, Klein and Matsui say it’s very powerful. According to government disclosure records, in the last five years the cruise industry spent $10 million lobbying lawmakers.
“Basically, you have had it your way for quite some time,” Matsui said of the cruise industry. “You don’t believe that you need to answer to one member of congress.”
During congressional hearings on cruise ship safety, Christine Duffy, president of the Cruise Lines International Association or CLIA, the world’s largest cruise association, testified that cruise companies are in compliance with the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.
“We remain fully and deeply committed to continuous enhancement of the safety of guests and crew members,” Duffy told lawmakers.
CLIA also issued us a statement saying it has an excellent safety record and that “the industry has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to crime. Cruise ships are required to report all allegations of a crime to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, and there are ramifications for not properly reporting.”
Now as an advocate, Dishman encourages victims of crime at sea to come forward and tell their stories.
“What gets hard is when I see someone half my age that has gone through something so traumatic as a rape or sexual assault and knowing that they were treated similar if not the same as I was,” she said.
Dishman says passengers deserve to know how many crimes have been reported, and whether they were investigated or not.
Congresswoman Matsui says she hopes to work with the FBI to change how the agency reports crime statistics.
If you have a story you think we should investigate, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.