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Sexual Assault Has No Boundaries

Be careful the next time you board a cruise ship. Sexual predators and other hidden dangers could be lurking inside your cabin.

Laurie Dishman reported being raped by a crewman during a Royal Caribbean cruise in 2006, and says she was told by the ship’s doctor to collect her own evidence in two gray garbage bags.

Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas luxury c...

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas luxury cruise ship. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 41-year-old from Sacramento said her cabin was never secured and that the crime scene became contaminated by visitors and a janitor who cleaned the room before any investigation could begin.

By the time FBI agents reached the ship five days after she reported the alleged rape, the crewman in question had been fired and sent home to Trinidad. Although Dishman had bruises in the shape of fingers around her neck and other physical signs of rape, charges were never filed because of insufficient evidence.

Now two years after Congress passed legislation to improve passenger safety aboard cruise ships, crime victims and other supporters of the law say key provisions are being watered down — including the mandatory reporting of crimes and how crew members are trained to handle them.

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 was initially designed to give passengers a more accurate picture of shipboard crime and assistance if they became victims of assault, rape or theft.

But since the law’s passage, reported crimes disclosed to the public have plummeted from more than 400 a year to a few dozen, dramatically understating the number of homicides, sexual assaults and other crimes on cruise ships.

A subtle change in the law’s wording — requested by the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard and inserted by the Senate Commerce Committee staff — allowed the agencies to release to the public only the number of closed cases no longer under investigation.

This change runs counter to the common practice of law enforcement agencies across the nation, which disclose the number of reported crimes in their jurisdictions whether there is an investigation or not.

Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who has studied cruise lines for 20 years, noted that between October of 2007, and September of 2008, the industry provided 421 crime reports to the FBI that were made public.

Under a Freedom of Information Act request filed after the law was passed, Klein received heavily redacted records that contained only a handful of reported offenses.

FBI and Coast Guard officials declined to comment, saying they are prohibited from discussing any information the agency might have provided to the legislative review process.

As originally written by Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Doris Matsui, the law contained no restrictions on the public disclosure of crime statistics.

During the legislative process, the FBI and Coast Guard sought the wording change, fearing that public disclosure might jeopardize ongoing investigations and endanger lives, said Whitney Smith, Kerry’s spokeswoman.

Though stakeholders were notified of the revision, Smith said, no one seemed to notice the new wording or understand the effect it would have on crime reporting.

Cruise industry officials said they were not involved in the change and asserted that the law is working as intended. Ship operators are complying with the act and continue to report crimes, said David Peikin, director of public affairs for the Cruise Lines International Assn. Congressional hearings, he added, have indicated that crime aboard cruise vessels is extremely rare.

Coast Guard officials also have said that good progress has been made implementing the law, which mandates a wide array of safety and security improvements for ships that call at U.S. ports, carry U.S. citizens or are owned by U.S. interests.

The industry handled about 11 million passengers from North America in 2010, and major cruise lines regularly call at or operate out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

If you or a loved one were harmed aboard a cruise ship, it is important that you contact a committed and dedicated personal injury lawyer to help you determine if you should file a lawsuit. A competent and reputable injury lawyer can help you receive the compensation you deserve for your pain and suffering.