The Carnival Miracle cast off from Cozumel, a picturesque island off the coast of Mexico, slowly making its way across the Caribbean Sea back to Tampa, Florida. It was the first Saturday of December 2018, and clouds dotted the sky, but the day was still bright and warm — perfect conditions for a winter break.
A 21-year-old woman was traveling with her friend and up to 2,000 other passengers on the Carnival cruise ship, a 960-foot-long, 12-story-tall ocean liner teeming with spas, bars, restaurants, and deckside pools. The eight-day trip was the young woman’s first-ever cruise.
She had enjoyed herself, spotting sea turtles off the Cayman Islands, visiting Mayan ruins in Belize, and swimming with dolphins off Cozumel — but everything would soon change. The woman, referred to as Jane Doe in court documents, spent that Saturday tanning by the pool, drinking, and hanging out with her friend and some acquaintances they had met on the cruise.
In the evening, the group went to dinner and attended a comedy show at the ship’s theater. By midnight, the party was in full flow. Doe decided to run around the cruise decks. As she ran up a stairwell, a Carnival crew member was waiting for her. According to a complaint filed in 2019, which BuzzFeed News reviewed, she claimed he then lured her into a closet and locked the door.
“I remember being scared seeing him holding the lock, so I started asking him where he was from to, like, calm the situation down, and he just kept saying that I looked like his girlfriend,” Doe recalled during her deposition.
She said the crew member then raped her and ejaculated on her.
When the assailant finally unlocked the closet door, Doe immediately rushed to her room. According to her deposition, she was pursued by the employee, who caught up with her and asked to be let into her cabin. She declined and closed the door behind her.
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Once inside, Doe burst into tears and told her friend what had happened, she recalled in her deposition. She began having a panic attack and hyperventilating. She and her friend immediately reported the alleged crime to Carnival guest services.
Doe was placed in a wheelchair and taken to the ship’s medical facility. When she told the doctor what had occurred, Doe said the medic apologized and told her, “Unfortunately, this happens all the time.”
In dozens of court documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, cruise ship passengers say they have been dragged into cabins and raped, pushed into janitors’ closets and assaulted, and even attacked in the public corridors of ships. Likewise, parents and guardians have alleged that their children were molested by other passengers or crew members, plied with alcohol, and in some instances, abused by daycare staffers at onboard activity centers. As recently as two weeks ago, the parents of a 17-year-old passenger filed a civil suit alleging she was raped by a fitness instructor onboard a Carnival cruise ship.
In fact, sexual assaults are the most prevalent reported crime on cruise ships, according to the FBI. Since 2015, there have been 454 reported allegations of sex crimes on cruise ships. Experts believe that the actual numbers are far higher, as many sexual assaults often go unreported. (For reference, more than two-thirds of all sexual assaults in the US are not reported to law enforcement, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.)
And many of the major cruise lines have been told — even by their own security staffers — that more could be done to protect passengers, such as installing more surveillance cameras and hiring additional security personnel. But according to court records, including a deposition from this February in a lawsuit alleging the gang rape of a minor on a Carnival Cruise ship, senior executives have opted not to implement the changes, claiming they're too expensive.
Troublingly, in many instances, the alleged assailants are the very crew members who are supposed to protect passengers — since 2015 nearly 1 in 4 of all reported sexual assaults on cruise lines have been committed by a crew member, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of FBI data.
For this story, BuzzFeed News spoke with industry experts, former cruise ship employees, victims’ attorneys, and passengers who say they were sexually assaulted — including a now-21-year-old woman who was allegedly molested by a crew member when she was 11 and a woman who claimed that she contracted HIV after allegedly being raped by a cruise employee. Both are speaking publicly here for the first time. All the cruise lines named in this story were also contacted for comment.
BuzzFeed News also reviewed hundreds of pages of court records, showing that major US cruise companies and their subsidiaries, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, and Norwegian, have settled at least 68 civil cases in the last two decades. Attorneys told BuzzFeed News that many cases are settled confidentially before reaching court. (While these settlements exist, they do not imply that the companies have admitted wrongdoing.)
At least 30 of these court settlements involved minors. Documents show that in two of those cases, the families of children allegedly abused a decade ago were paid around half a million dollars to settle their cases in confidential agreements where “all parties expressly deny liability.”
Over the course of BuzzFeed News’ investigation, some key themes emerged: The cruise vessels where the alleged crimes occurred appear to lack proper coverage from security cameras, while security staffers are inadequately trained in investigating sexual assaults and are too few in number to serve as an effective deterrent for predators.
“It is much more profitable and financially beneficial for them to just settle each claim or lawsuit on a case-by-case basis.”
The cruise lines “don’t need to increase security and safety standards because they can continue to simply and legally avoid them,” said Jamie Barnett, president of the advocacy group International Cruise Victims. Barnett’s daughter died of a drug overdose on a Carnival cruise, an incident she believes was not properly investigated. “It is much more profitable and financially beneficial for them to just settle each claim or lawsuit on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
For alleged victims, facing the cruise lines in civil court can often be a draining process that is drawn out for years. They have to recount their harrowing experiences during depositions, and key evidence in their case, such as surveillance footage, often does not exist or has been deleted. Most major cruise lines also only give passengers one year after an alleged incident to file a civil case, and the cruise operator chooses the state and the court where the complaint must be filed, meaning alleged victims may have to travel cross-country to pursue their case.
“That’s something people don’t realize, is that the rights and protection that we all as Americans have do not go with you when you get on a cruise ship,” Barnett said. “You have no idea where to turn.”
It’s a stark realization, given how lucrative the industry is and how many vacationers cruise ships service. In 2018, the same year Doe embarked on Carnival’s Miracle, the cruise industry had one of its most financially successful years, with Carnival Corporation — the largest cruise company in the US — generating just under $19 billion in revenue. Royal Caribbean, the second-largest US cruise line, reported around $9.5 billion in revenue. Both delivered billions in profits to their shareholders.
But the industry struggled during the pandemic, with its ships berthed during the lockdowns. When tourism opened up again, the cruise sector launched vibrant marketing campaigns to bring passengers back. The strategy appears to have worked — business is rebounding. But as passengers returned to the seas after COVID, the number of sexual assault allegations reported to the FBI shot up again, too. In 2022, 87 alleged sexual assaults were reported on cruise ships — the second-highest number of such incidents recorded since the US Department of Transportation began publishing crime data in 2010.
The issue of sexual assaults on cruise ships was brought to light in 1998 when the New York Times published an exposé about onboard sex crimes and found a pattern of cover-ups by the industry. A former chief of security for Carnival told the paper, “Even when I knew there was a crime, I was supposed to go in there and do everything in the world to get Carnival to look innocent.”
In the wake of the New York Times coverage, the industry promised to improve. In 1999, Royal Caribbean commissioned an outside task force to look into the issue of sexual assaults on its ships. The consultants suggested multiple ways in which Royal Caribbean could improve passenger safety and prevent sexual assaults. Several of the suggestions involved increasing security measures, according to the task force reports obtained by BuzzFeed News.
“They didn’t implement a single change,” James Walker, a Miami-based maritime attorney who received the task force’s internal reports from 1999 via a court order against Royal Caribbean, told BuzzFeed News. Walker said that after taking several depositions of Royal Caribbean employees, he learned that none of the proposed changes were implemented by the company and that the cruise line decided to run a “zero tolerance” marketing concept instead.
Royal Caribbean did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Safety advocates and politicians have long called for the industry to take more action to reduce sex crimes on its ships. But Congress hasn’t passed an expansive cruise safety bill since the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, which, among other things, required cruise lines to report alleged onboard crimes to the FBI for investigation.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal has worked on cruise ship safety legislation for over a decade. Onboard crime, including sexual assault and physical violence, “interferes with the celebratory mood of the cruise,” Blumenthal told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “So their goal is to minimize it and even sweep it under the rug without other passengers becoming alarmed or even aware of it.”
In a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News, CLIA, the Cruise Lines International Association, insisted that cruise ships are one of the “safest vacation options in the world,” adding that their rates of serious crimes are “exceedingly lower than those on land due to multiple layers of security and the nature of cruising.”
“Cruise lines have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to criminal behavior, and allegations of major crimes on cruise ships are extremely rare,” CLIA said in the statement.
The organization pointed to a 2019 study it commissioned on cruise ship crimes, including sexual assaults, by James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University who has served as a defense expert on cruise sexual assault cases. Fox’s report, based on a review of FBI data, suggests that the rates of sexual assault between 2015 and 2018 were far lower on cruises than in cities of comparable populations.
“No place is totally safe — you have to obviously take a certain degree of precautions,” Fox told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “Overall, the risk is very low. But not zero. I don’t think the industry would say it’s zero. I think they would say it’s a safe way to take a vacation. And it is a safe vacation.”
“I think the cruise industry does a fabulous job, with all the billions of dollars they have, making the public feel like a cruise is the safest thing you could do.”
Meanwhile, the industry spends millions lobbying Congress — figures from Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks lobbying and political donations, show that the cruise industry has spent $21.6 million on lobbying members of Congress over the last five years — and enlists celebrities for slick commercials to encourage people to spend their vacations on voyages.
“We go to Congress holding pictures of our family members, and afterwards the lobbyists just waltz right in, and nothing ever changes,” International Cruise Victims’ Barnett said of her advocacy work. “I think the cruise industry does a fabulous job, with all the billions of dollars they have, making the public feel like a cruise is the safest thing you could do. Nothing will go wrong. It’s paradise.”
But while there are more incidents of reported crimes on land than at sea, maritime attorney Michael Winkleman pointed out one big difference: At sea, there is no independent law enforcement to immediately investigate these alleged crimes. Instead, victims often must rely on onboard security to maintain the crime scene and preserve evidence. Experts and victims’ attorneys say that poorly trained security staff sometimes fail to collect critical evidence and testimony, leaving alleged sex crime victims unable to find justice in either criminal or civil trials.
BuzzFeed News has found, in some cases, critical evidence — such as surveillance footage (when it exists) and, in one instance, a rape kit — has gone missing or been mishandled by cruise operators. “In my experience, the vast majority of people who commit crimes at sea are not charged, never arrested, not prosecuted, and walking free right now,” Winkleman said.
The FBI does have jurisdiction to investigate a lot of these crimes — namely when a ship is US-owned or departing or arriving at a US port, or if the alleged crime involves a US citizen — but the bureau oftentimes doesn’t have immediate access to the ship or crime scene because the boat is at sea.
Documents BuzzFeed News reviewed from a settled 2011 lawsuit, in which a 15-year-old girl alleged that she was forced to perform oral sex on a crew member, show an FBI agent emailing a senior investigator at Royal Caribbean about the suspected assailant. “To ask law enforcement officers to pull themselves off an active case to interview a guy on a hunch???” the FBI agent wrote. “We can’t go interviewing people just because. A guy off the street is one thing… but this would require a ship board[ing], identification to upper management, and a potential can of worms.” Instead, the agent suggested that the Royal Caribbean investigator conduct an interview and share the findings with him.
“Our best bet would have been the CCTV footage at the particular time and place along with any key card logs. But you did not have that. It is what it is.”
The cruise employee reported back that the accused attacker denied the allegations. “That’s it…,” the FBI agent responded. “No further investigation on my part… we had very little, to begin with, and far too much time has gone by… our best bet would have been the CCTV footage at the particular time and place along with any key card logs. But you did not have that. It is what it is.”
The FBI declined to comment to BuzzFeed News on this specific incident. But the bureau said in a statement that it remains “committed to investigating these crimes and bringing justice for the victims and their families.” The statement continued, “The FBI works closely and tirelessly with our partners in law enforcement and in the cruising industry to collect the evidence and facts of cases.”
After Jane Doe reported the alleged rape to the Carnival Miracle staff and was taken to the medical facility on the ship, the boat docked back in Tampa. FBI agents boarded the vessel to investigate the incident and interview her and the alleged assailant. He claimed that they had consensual sex. For two weeks after the incident, Doe bled from her genitals, she said in a civil suit she filed around 11 months after the trip.
According to the court records from her case, after she was taken to the ship’s medical facility that morning after the alleged rape occurred, the medical personnel administered a rape kit and removed her clothes and underwear. Her lawyer, Daniel Courtney, told BuzzFeed News that during the trial it was revealed that Carnival did not preserve the rape kit, and thus it could not be used as evidence during litigation.
The best answer that Carnival gave Courtney, he said, was, “At some point, someone would have thrown it out.” Doe was also never given her underwear or clothes back by Carnival, according to Courtney.
During the trial, Carnival also didn’t provide surveillance footage of the alleged incident, as he said the company claimed that, too, was not retained. Courtney added that Carnival said during the trial that it didn't have the alleged assailant’s employment file.
“It’s really frustrating not having the information, because you feel powerless,” Courtney said. In addition, the lawyer said, during the discovery period, he and his client learned that she had allegedly signed a form retracting the rape allegation.
During their depositions, both Doe and her friend said they couldn’t remember signing a retraction. “They were giving me a lot of papers to sign,” Doe testified. “I just was signing what they were telling me to sign.” When asked by her lawyer whether there was ever a moment she wanted to retract the allegation, Doe said, “Absolutely no.”
“Her signature and her roommate’s signature are on this form,” Courtney said. “Everything else is in the doctor’s handwriting. The clinical rules are that everything should be in the person’s handwriting.”
Carnival Corporation said it would not comment on any of the specific cases laid out in this article but did say in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News that it is committed to the health and safety of its guests and has “effective onboard security measures and also use[s] screening tools to promote a safe and secure environment for all on board.” The company added, “In the rare instances of an incident, our ships are equipped with security, medical staff, and facilities to handle and investigate alleged sexual assaults and provide immediate victim care services.”
A Carnival Corporation spokesperson stressed that since 2018, “out of the almost 25 million guests who sailed on board our ships, we reported 145 allegations of assault.”
The spokesperson added, “As with all areas of our operation, we constantly examine and adjust our safety and security processes and protocols to adopt industry best practices and address the needs of our business.”
Last year, Carnival confirmed in a statement to the Washington Post that the alleged assailant in Doe’s case was fired from the cruise line after the incident was reported. He was never charged.
“If the cruise line allows them off the ship at the next port, which often happens, then they take a plane back to their home country, they get into the wind.”
“Perpetrators are rarely convicted,” Miami-based maritime lawyer Jack Hickey told BuzzFeed News, referring to crew members who have been accused of sexual assault. “They’re convicted, generally speaking, only if they confess and if they are taken into custody by the cruise line or on US soil. If the cruise line allows them off the ship at the next port, which often happens, then they take a plane back to their home country, they get into the wind.” Indeed, Winkleman added, “Finding them is like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.”
Going against a major cruise company in civil court can take years to litigate. In July 2022, three years after Doe first filed the lawsuit and almost four years after the alleged incident occurred, a jury in a Miami federal court ruled that Carnival Cruise Line owed her more than $10.2 million in damages. It was Courtney’s understanding that this was the largest sum ever awarded in a sexual assault case against a major cruise line, he told the Washington Post at the time. While the jury did not find that Carnival was negligent, it said that the cruise line was liable for the acts of its crew members.
“It was a significant verdict and likely served as a wake-up call to the industry on how juries view these crimes at sea,” said Winkleman, who was not involved in the case. “I’m confident the eight-figure verdict will force all cruise lines to take another look at how they work to prevent these crimes at sea and protect their passengers.” However, he added, he had yet to see any changes in the industry as a result of the judgment.
While she may have won in court, Doe spoke about how the experience on the Carnival cruise ship changed her life, saying in a written statement during the discovery period that she now has depressive episodes and anxiety. “It has affected how intimate I am with a person,” she said, adding that at her lowest point, she seriously considered killing herself. “I had a plan,” she said in the statement she wrote during litigation, which was subsequently sent to BuzzFeed News by Courtney. “I went around to visit my friends and created memories for them to remember me. I also wrote everyone notes.”
Carnival has denied any wrongdoing and is appealing the multimillion-dollar judgment.
In two separate lawsuits reviewed by BuzzFeed News — filed seven years apart and involving alleged sexual assaults on Carnival ships — the issue of security took center stage. In the civil cases, filed in 2015 and 2022 by Miami-based attorney Nicholas Gerson, Carnival’s own security staff admitted in depositions that they had been warning management about security staffing issues for years.
In the first case, a woman passenger alleged that in September 2014, she had been raped by two male passengers aboard the Carnival Sensation. According to her deposition, she didn’t realize that she was being followed through the ship by the alleged assailants. As she reached the door of her cabin, they forced their way into her room and raped her.
According to civil court documents, a passenger staying in the cabin next door heard “banging noises” and was so worried about what was happening that she called security twice. It took cruise security officials 20 minutes to arrive.
Once they did, a security officer — who, according to deposition records, had only been given nine hours of online training after he was hired — interviewed the woman and decided that what occurred wasn’t sexual assault. He didn’t tell the ship’s chief security officer about the incident for two and a half hours. And when the woman wanted to see the onboard doctor, she claimed she was told by one of the cruise employees that it would cost her $100.
In her deposition, she recounted that a Carnival employee she spoke with after reporting the incident told her to “keep quiet and not disturb other guests” and that “sometimes things are better left unsaid.”
Per court records, the cruise company took an immediate, aggressive stance, arguing that she should refile the case under her real name rather than the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” as she “voluntarily” brought the case in the pursuit of money and should “publicly stand behind her allegations.”
She recounted that a Carnival employee she spoke with after reporting the incident told her to “keep quiet and not disturb other guests” and that “sometimes things are better left unsaid.”
During the depositions, Carnival Cruise Line’s then–security director Michael Panariello told the court that he had flagged security shortcomings to management for years.
Panariello said that he “would love to have more security officers patrolling cabin areas” as a deterrent and that his teams were understaffed — but he said that the company had ruled out hiring more staffers due to budget constraints.
When asked whether he was aware of any adjustments relating to physical security aboard Carnival ships as a result of past sexual assaults, Panariello replied, “No.”
“We’re always requesting more [security]” on Carnival vessels, Panariello said in his deposition in 2015. When queried about how long he had been asking for more security officers, the director responded, “Probably since I’ve been there in 2007.”
“What have you been told in response?” the plaintiff’s attorney asked. “No cabin space,” the security director responded, adding that the changes did not fit the budget. (Panariello died in 2018.)
Panariello’s boss, Dominick Froio Jr., the then–vice president of security, also testified. He admitted that his team had requested increased staffing, but in his view, they didn’t need it, as the vessels were safe. Froio said that they had asked for more resources “to make their life easier,” and so “they have to work less.”
Froio did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about his 2015 deposition.
While there were 135 cameras on the vessel in 2014 and 2015 — and according to Robert Williams, the senior manager of investigations in Carnival Cruises’ security department, only 70 or 80 of those could record video — court documents show there were no cameras installed in passenger corridors, the nightclub, elevators, stairways, or one of the restaurants.
In the deposition, Williams acknowledged that security officers had requested more CCTV cameras in passenger hallways. “They’ve also requested more pay,” Williams said, “and they’ve requested several other things.”
Williams said that around 2013 or 2014, he conducted a security assessment of all Carnival ships regarding the need for more cameras on its vessels. In the report, he concluded that the boats were deficient in the number and placement of CCTV cameras and that more needed to be installed in “areas where our guests go.”
“Carnival had a duty of care to protect passengers like Doe, and by failing to remedy conditions, it knew to be deficient, breached their duty to provide reasonable security protection,” maritime security expert Kim Petersen, a former special forces officer and founding security officer of Princess Cruises, a Carnival Corporation subsidiary, from 1996 to 1999, wrote in an expert report for the plaintiff.
Carnival Corporation settled the case in 2016 for an undisclosed amount of money; the settlement is under yet another confidentiality agreement.
“It doesn’t seem like anything has changed. They seem to be conducting business the exact same way that they were since that case was resolved.”
The case should “have opened up Carnival’s eyes to make significant changes to the way that they were conducting their security operations, as far as staffing and manning levels,” Gerson, the attorney, told BuzzFeed News. “So far, it doesn’t seem like anything has changed. They seem to be conducting business the exact same way that they were since that case was resolved.” Carnival did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about whether any steps have been taken to increase security staffing or video surveillance on its ships.
Gerson pointed BuzzFeed News to a still-ongoing case stemming from an August 2019 incident on the Carnival Horizon involving a Canadian citizen, J.F., then 15 years old. In the ship’s teen lounge, she met two male teens and an 18-year-old man, who should not have been there. When the club closed at 1 a.m., the plaintiff and the three males decided to get some pizza, then stopped at one of their rooms to get a phone charger. According to the complaint, when J.F. entered the room, the males locked the door and all three forcibly restrained her on the bed and raped her.
In a February 2023 deposition in the case, Froio, who retired from Carnival in 2020, was deposed once more. He admitted that there had been more requests made by members of the Carnival security team to add security personnel on the ships since 2015 — the year Panariello testified about security issues.
Froio testified that in the years before 2019, there were semiannual meetings in which security team members would convene to address concerns with Carnival’s senior executives.
When asked by an attorney whether, in those meetings, there had been concerns raised by not just Panariello but also the security officers and the assistant chief security officers about needing more staffing on the ships, Frorio assented. “They voiced their opinions,” he said.
Froio said that though he had asked for more security officers multiple times over his 25 years at the company, the requests were rejected by upper management due to budgetary issues, echoing what Panariello said almost eight years before. “Sometimes things go on deaf ears,” Froio said. “They have other priorities.”
He did, however, acknowledge that the company had added guards to a “couple of ships” when it had particular security concerns, but he did not specify how many guards, which ships, or what the security concerns were.
When approached for comment, Froio pointed to the parts of the deposition in which he explained the “positive efforts” that he said Carnival had made, such as increasing security on a number of ships and training non-security crew members to “assist in any safety and security measure they could see.”
When asked about this case, Carnival Corporation reiterated that it doesn’t discuss individual cases but said that “every ship has a dedicated security department staffed by highly trained law-enforcement, maritime and military personnel.”
“All security personnel participate in monthly, quarterly and yearly training, drills and exercises, including annual FBI special agent-led instruction on preventing and responding to serious crimes, including acts of sexual violence,” it added.
Since Froio retired in mid-2020, there have been 44 reports of sexual assaults on Carnival Corporation ships and its subsidiaries, such as Holland America and Princess. BuzzFeed News has also identified at least six civil lawsuits filed against the company since 2020, all alleging failures by the company to provide adequate security on its ships.
“The general belief amongst the cruise lines is just that, Crimes happen, what can we do? What are we supposed to do?” Gerson said. “And the truth is, they could be doing a lot more.”
It’s seemingly rare for people who’ve worked for cruise lines to talk directly to the press about the industry’s failings, but Dawn Taplin needed the world to know about what she experienced working for Disney Cruise Line. She first shared her story with Orlando’s News 6 in 2014, but she recently spoke with BuzzFeed News to provide more detail about her experiences.
Taplin said she had worked in law enforcement in Florida for over 16 years when she joined Disney Cruise Line as a security officer in 2011. She was just the kind of recruit Disney was after: a decorated detective who’d investigated serious crimes, including homicides, and taught other officers how to capture violent criminals.
Taplin’s recruitment was part of Disney’s drive to get more security experience on board after a public relations disaster earlier that year, she said. In March 2011, a 24-year-old English woman named Rebecca Coriam was working as a youth activity employee on the Disney Wonder when she was lost overboard. At the time, Disney said that she died by suicide or was swept away by a wave, but her family believes she was sexually assaulted before she disappeared. Her body was never recovered, but a pair of her shorts, which were ripped, were returned to the family. The investigators the family hired said the clothing indicated a violent struggle had taken place.
Because of her investigative expertise, Taplin said, she was asked to read Disney’s report of Coriam’s death. The situation, she said, was tightly controlled, and she was not allowed to make copies of the report. Instead, Taplin said, she had to read it in her boss’s presence.
“I said, ‘What kind of case is this? You know, this is not a suicide. You know that, right?’” Taplin told BuzzFeed News. “I said that there’s a lot wrong with this.”
“Where’s the CCTV?” she recalled asking her supervisor. “He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, the fall happened in front of the bridge, so there should be six or seven cameras going along the full length of the bridge.’”
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Disney settled with Coriam’s family in 2015. Her parents are still investigating the circumstances of their daughter’s disappearance.
Roy Ramm, a former commander of specialist operations at the Metropolitan Police in the UK, was hired by the Coriams to investigate Rebecca’s death. “I am not surprised that Disney had concerns about the adequacy of the investigation into the circumstances of Rebecca’s death. In my view, the original investigation was totally inadequate and badly flawed,” he told BuzzFeed News, adding that the Coriam family had been encouraged to sign a nondisclosure agreement while in a state of distress. “Disney has been totally opaque.”
Disney Cruise Line did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Another case that has haunted Taplin for years came around nine months after she first joined Disney Cruise Line. At around 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2012, Taplin received a call that a crew member had allegedly molested a preteen girl in an elevator, kissing and groping her in full view of a camera while the ship was still docked in Florida. Two-thirds of the alleged sexual assaults on Disney ships since 2010 were allegedly committed by Disney crew members, according to government statistics.
“I said, ‘What kind of case is this? You know, this is not a suicide. You know that, right?’”
Now 21 years old, the alleged victim has spoken out about her experience for the first time. (BuzzFeed News is referring to her as “G.” to protect her identity.) Then just 11 years old, G. was on the cruise with her grandmother and little sister and was excited about the vacation. “Automatically, as a child, you think it’s going to be amazing,” she said.
Before the ship had even cast off for the Caribbean, G. went downstairs to get the Wi-Fi password, she told BuzzFeed News. “I asked the person that was outside of the restaurant for directions to the lobby,” she recalled. “And when he guided me, he immediately grabbed on my boobs.”
G. ran to the lobby in search of someone who could tell her the Wi-Fi password. She said she “was scared to go through the same direction” on the way back because she might cross paths with the man who had touched her. But she needed to return to her room and feared getting lost on the giant ship.
As G. walked past the restaurant, she got into an elevator. She said the same employee followed her in, blocking the doors. “He said, ‘Can I have a kiss?’” she recalled. “I gave him a kiss on the cheek, and he said, ‘No, not there.’” She then alleged that the employee leaned down, kissed her on the mouth.
After he let her go, G. ran to her room in tears. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
She said she told her grandmother why she was so distraught, and they went to the lobby to report what happened to guest services. G. said they asked her about the incident and what the employee looked like and promised it would be investigated.
Taplin, who was on board at the time, said she watched the elevator surveillance footage, which confirmed the child’s version of events. Later, G. said she was asked to identify the assailant by looking at photographs of four employees. According to both Taplin and G., the girl identified the assailant as a waiter at one of the ship’s restaurants.
Taplin said she did her best to investigate the case but claimed she was obstructed throughout the process. She claimed she told one of the ship’s senior officers to call the FBI while the boat was still docked in Port Canaveral, Florida. But the officer decided to cast off at around 5 p.m. and did not inform the FBI until the ship was in international waters.
Afterward, Taplin said, the senior officer interviewed the accused crew member while she was present. The official report of the meeting, obtained by BuzzFeed News, states that the crew member “hesitated, but eventually denied kissing the girl” and only gave her a “high five and hug.”
Taplin said that what wasn’t included in the report was that during the meeting, the officer had threatened the crew member, saying, “I’m going to cut off your dick right now” and that he would remove the crew member’s testicles and “put his balls in his mouth.”
When the ship docked in the Bahamas the next day, local police officers arrived. According to Taplin, the police berated and threatened the alleged attacker, pressuring him to confess. “It was just so wrong,” Taplin said. “I mean, you got him red-handed with what he’d done, right?”
In the end, he signed a statement that Taplin alleged was written by the Bahamian police. “I touched her right breast with my left hand,” the signed confession reads. However, Taplin noted that the alleged suspect was not arrested. Instead, he was repatriated to the state of Goa, in India.
G. said she was so scared for the rest of the vacation that she didn’t want to leave her grandmother’s side and never felt safe on board again. She said she could only relax during a stop at Castaway Cay, a private Caribbean island that Disney owns, because she knew her assailant wouldn’t be there.
After G. reported the attack, she said that Disney instructed the employee who was cleaning her room to demonstrate how they create little animals out of the towels and they put a princess bedspread on her bed. “But that was basically it,” she said. After she got home from her cruise, G. said that her family only heard from Disney once to tell them that the accused crew member had been deported.
G. said she was so scared for the rest of the vacation that she didn’t want to leave her grandmother’s side and never felt safe on board again.
According to G., the company never offered her counseling or any other support. “How was I? They didn’t really care,” G. said. “Disney really did not follow up with us. They said they would give us a free trip, but that never actually happened.”
Taplin’s contract with Disney expired a few weeks after the incident with G., she told BuzzFeed News, and she had no interest in renewing it. She was finished with the cruise industry and Disney; she said she didn’t think the company matched her standard of ethics. Today she works as a community college professor and police academy instructor in Florida.
And while the crew member was fired and deported, he appears to be working for another cruise line. On two Facebook profiles linked to the former crew member that BuzzFeed News found, his profile states that he currently works for Norwegian Cruise Line. To verify his employment, BuzzFeed News contacted Norwegian Cruise Line multiple times for comment but did not receive a response.
If true, this wouldn’t be the first time an alleged perpetrator has gone on to work for another cruise line. In one case, first reported by the Miami New Times in 2019, a Carnival employee was fired and sent back to his home country after it was alleged that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl. A civil lawsuit ensued, and he was never charged. Nonetheless, he went to work for another operator, Celebrity Cruises, where he was accused of assaulting a 19-year-old, resulting in another lawsuit. The companies settled both cases.
Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises’ parent company, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on these cases from BuzzFeed News.
Winkleman, the maritime lawyer, said that in his experience, sexual predators are drawn to cruise ships as they feel they can get away with their crimes there. He pointed to a recent case in which an assistant cruise director from a Princess Cruises ship was arrested in 2022 after grooming a 16-year-old who had been on the ship with her family. After the cruise ended, the criminal complaint said, he coerced the minor into performing sexual acts with him and produced child sexual abuse images and videos.
The man was charged with enticement of a minor and production of child sexual abuse materials last year, and after pleading guilty to both counts, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. During the investigation, it emerged he had been sharing child sexual abuse materials with another Princess employee.
The former assistant cruise director is now appealing the sentence. His victim, who is no longer a minor, last month filed a civil lawsuit against Princess Cruises for negligence. As of the time of publication, Princess Cruises has yet to respond in court to the initial complaint.
The assistant cruise director “is supposed to be the one that interacts most with the passengers,” said Winkleman, who is representing the victim in her civil case. “And he’s doing this to an underage passenger? It’s terrifying.”
Earlier this year, a sexual assault case on Princess Cruises made headlines when a now-27-year-old woman claimed that she contracted HIV after being raped by a crew member in 2021. The woman, who was listed in court documents as Jane Doe and who is referred to as B.U. in this article, gave her first interview to BuzzFeed News.
As B.U., who was traveling with her best friend, wandered around the Sky Princess vessel on the first day of the trip, she passed an art gallery. A gallery employee introduced himself, B.U. said, and invited her to participate in a raffle to win some artwork that the gallery was running a few days later.
She attended the raffle and didn’t win a prize, so she left, despite the gallery manager asking her to stay. It was a day at sea and B.U. spent the remainder of it with her best friend at the bars on the vessel.
Later in the day, B.U. said, she became visibly drunk and ran into the art gallery employee on her way back to her cabin. She expressed disappointment that there were no fun activities for people her age. (Princess appeals to an older demographic than other cruise lines such as Carnival.) The employee asked for her cabin number, which B.U. said she assumed he would use to keep her updated on activities that might interest her.
At around 10 or 11 p.m., according to B.U., the employee called her cabin and told her to meet him at the art gallery. Once there, she said, he gave her more to drink, even though she was already intoxicated. B.U. alleged that he led her into a storage room where the artworks were kept and raped her.
“That feeling of being trapped within myself just grew,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I said no, but I mean, he was strong, so I just waited until it was over.”
She didn’t tell anyone, even her best friend, what had happened for the remaining five nights of the cruise. She said she went through the rest of that time in a daze.
“I just hid it within myself just to get through the rest of the cruise. Because I was still trapped there with him, I couldn’t go anywhere,” B.U. said. “He knew where my room was. So I don’t know if this is just him. I don’t know if other employees are like this. So I was just afraid.”
Within a few days of returning home, B.U. said, she began to feel nauseous and started experiencing what she thought was gastroenteritis.
When the symptoms persisted, B.U. went to the emergency room. After undergoing several tests, she was diagnosed with HIV in February 2022.
“That feeling of being trapped within myself just grew. I said no, but I mean, he was strong, so I just waited until it was over.”
“This is something that I have to worry about now, every day,” B.U. said. “If I miss my medication, is the virus going to overcome? Am I going to start to get sick? Are people going to find out? Are they going to reject me?”
She still has not told her family or friends about the alleged rape or her subsequent diagnosis. “This fear that I have in myself, how can I give that to anybody else? How can I make the people that love me afraid for my life?” she said.
Since the incident, B.U. said she has been diagnosed with PTSD and has started therapy. “I was diagnosed with severe anxiety. I have terrible depression,” she said. “I have night terrors.”
“I feel like I’m living everybody’s nightmare,” B.U. said.
In January 2023, she filed a civil lawsuit against Princess Cruise Lines. The litigation is ongoing. Carnival Corporation, Princess’s parent company, declined to comment on this case when reached for comment by BuzzFeed News, but the company has filed a motion to dismiss the case on procedural grounds.
Having been involved in numerous negligence cases against cruise lines involving sexual assault, including B.U.’s, Winkleman wishes it all would just stop. “Few things would make me happier than for this practice area to go away and cruisers to be more safe, and no one gets raped and sexually assaulted at sea,” he said. “But for the time being, it seems as though it’s an unfortunate element of cruising.”
Sen. Blumenthal, who’s personally never been on a cruise, indicated that things won’t change in the cruise industry without legislation. He has sponsored the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, which has been introduced in Congress each year since 2013 without success.
The bill would extend the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit against a cruise line from one to three years, increase security requirements, establish a hotline for people who report crimes while on a cruise, and make it compulsory for cruise ships to notify the FBI within four hours of an alleged incident. It would also ensure that if a boat is docked in a US port when a crime occurs, the FBI would be notified before the boat leaves, something that would have prevented the Disney vessel in G.’s incident from casting off without intervention from US law enforcement.
Over the years, Blumenthal has been able to pass a few elements of the bill. For example, in 2020, he added several provisions to the national defense bill. They were enacted into law, marking the first cruise industry regulations in a decade. One of the provisions mandates that each cruise line and vessel have a qualified physician on board. The defense bill also includes language from the Cruise Passenger Protection Act ordering the installation of more cameras in common areas and the retention of video records for 20 days.
As for the rest of the bill, Blumenthal said, none of its “provisions imposes a significant burden on the cruise industry. They simply don’t want anyone to tell them what to do.” He added that the lobby for the cruise industry devotes a lot of resources and money to Congress, which allows it to have “tremendous sway.”
“I wish anyone who takes a cruise a safe and happy time. But I would urge them to lock their doors and take precautions.”
He told BuzzFeed News that he hopes there will be a congressional hearing soon to examine the issues surrounding sexual assault and the cruise industry. He said he plans to reintroduce his cruise safety legislation in this new Congress.
“I wish anyone who takes a cruise a safe and happy time,” he said. “But I would urge them to lock their doors and take precautions.”
At the time of publication, chief executives from the cruise industry were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a key part of their annual calendar: the Seatrade Cruise Global conference. This year’s theme is “Forward Momentum.” The conference features talks from top executives across the industry, evening cocktail parties, and “puppy yoga” for attendees who want to take a break.
There was one panel called “Navigating Rough Waters: Marine Casualty Prevention and Information,” devoted to “identifying and preventing the most frequent marine casualties and near-misses.” There were none listed that address sexual assault or crime prevention.
“Business is back, cruising expectations have changed, and customer confidence has skyrocketed,” the conference’s website reads. “One thing is certain, cruising is on an upward trajectory.” ●