By Joan Delaney
Epoch Times Victoria Staff
When Merrian Carver went missing on the second day of a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska in 2004, her family members say they weren’t notified by the cruise line.
In fact Kendall Carver, the father of the 40-year-old woman from Massachusetts, says after his daughter’s disappearance his family had to cope with a painful “cover-up” by cruise ship officials.
The incident went unreported to the FBI until weeks after the disappearance, and was only reported then because Carver contacted Royal Caribbean.
The cruise line, which had already disposed of most of Merrian’s belongings, indicated to the FBI that nothing had happened on the cruise, says Carver, and refused to permit Carver to interview the steward who had looked after his daughter’s cabin.
“We determined that we wanted to speak to one person (the steward) on board that ship, and to do that we had to hire an international detective agency, two law firms, take court action in two states and spend $75,000.” It was only after a court-ordered deposition, Carver says, that “we found out they were lying to us the whole time” as the steward had in fact reported Merrian’s disappearance. She has never been found.
Carver has since formed the International Cruise Victims Association to support victims and help bring about change in an industry that has been accused of being arrogant and uncaring toward victims of crimes perpetrated during a cruise.
It has been said that cruise ships are the perfect place to commit a crime. This is because international cruise lines operate under foreign “flags of convenience” and are not required under U.S. law to report crimes that occur outside of U.S. territorial waters.
Although cruise lines have agreed to voluntarily report crimes committed at sea to the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard, this currently only applies to Americans.
NDP MP Denise Savoie and NDP Transport Critic Brian Masse want some protection in place for Canadians as well and are asking for a written commitment from Miami-based Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) to report all crimes committed against Canadian passengers and crew while on board international cruise ships.
“I’m asking why is the industry not reporting to Canadian authorities and why has our government not stepped up and demanded this,” says Savoie, whose riding of Victoria will receive 211 international ship visits this year and an additional 10 “pocket-ship” visits.
Savoie’s call coincides with a Senate hearing led by U.S. Senator John Kerry on the issue of crime on cruise ships. Last week, Kerry introduced legislation that would improve safety and accountability. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House of Congress.
The Senate hearing and also a series of Congressional hearings in recent years heard from victims of cruise ship crime and their families who felt abandoned and frustrated with what they said was a cavalier attitude and a lack of cooperation from the industry.
Critics and victims accuse cruise lines of attempting to conceal crimes while the only “punishment” meted out to crew members is to fire them. However, these workers are often able to get hired on another ship.
While most who take a cruise will never encounter any problems, victims of a crime may find that they’re on their own.
Ross Klein, a professor of social work at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, says that while the industry has agreed to report crimes to the FBI, the agreement has no teeth because it is done on a voluntary basis and there’s no obligation to make the crimes public.
“Back in 1999 the cruise lines announced a zero tolerance policy but that certainly hasn’t been the case in practice given the numbers of sexual assaults and other crimes,” he says.
While the industry insists passengers are safer at sea than on land, Klein says his research shows that the rate for sexual assaults on cruise ships is about 57 per 100,000.
“That’s about 80 to 90 per cent higher than the rate for forcible rape in the U.S. Particularly significant is that it is more than three times higher than what the industry claimed in their testimony before Congress in 2006.”
Passengers as well as crew members can be both victims and perpetrators. Children have been sexually assaulted as well.
People disappear from cruise ships at the rate of about 20 per year, says Klein, some of which take place “under very mysterious circumstances.”
“In some cases they are suicides, in some cases they are accidents, but certainly the majority of cases remain questionable in terms of how and why that person disappeared.”
Klein, who testified at the Senate and Congressional hearings, has written extensively about the cruise industry and often appears as an expert witness on cruise ship crime. He has also joined in the call for Canadian regulations.
While requests for an interview with the CLIA were not granted, CLIA president Terry Dale told the Senate hearing that the industry’s “care and compassion” in dealing with victims of crime has not always been satisfactory.
However, he said cruise lines “have made great strides in the past two years to improve our procedures to provide more support to those who have been injured or families that have been affected.”
Dale also said that both the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard have testified that the voluntary reporting system is working efficiently.
Some commentators believe the high number of sexual assaults during cruises is partially due to staff being separated from their wives or girlfriends for up to six months at a time and a party atmosphere on board where alcohol flows freely.
Miami-based Charles Lipcon, a maritime lawyer for 30 years, cites an additional reason.
“I believe that the number of sexual assaults on cruise ships is increasing quite a bit. I think the word is out among sexual predators that you can go on a ship and rape someone and nothing happens to you even if you’re caught. So what kind of message is that?”
Date rape drugs are increasingly used in sexual assaults on cruise ships, says Lipcon, adding that in his experience the cruise lines first and foremost scramble to safeguard themselves rather than the victim in the event of a crime.
While the U.S. government has jurisdiction over crimes involving U.S. citizens and residents, Lipcon says investigations usually lead nowhere because in many cases law enforcement cannot board the ship until a few days after a crime is committed and evidence is often not properly preserved.
In an industry worth an estimated $35.7 billion, Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines account for about 94 per cent of the North American market.
The ships are registered in countries such as Liberia, Panama and Bermuda, and pay little if any corporate tax. Some ships carry up to 4,000 passengers.
As well as testifying at the hearings, Carver says he has had “feel-good meetings” with cruise industry officials several times who, he says, agree to make improvements but never do.
He hopes Kerry’s bill will be passed, but given the lobbying power of the industry, he’s not holding his breath.
“Last year they spent $2,800,000 in Washington lobbying — you’re talking big money. We know we’re in an uphill struggle but at least we’re giving them a lot of heartburn.”