Last August, a 33-year-old Disney Cruise Line employee groped an 11-year-old passenger while the Disney Dream was still docked in Port Canaveral, Fla. The girl and her grandmother immediately reported the incident to Disney staff onboard, but according to a telling investigation by Florida’s WKMG Local 6 TV station, Disney Cruise Line did not alert Port Canaveral police until the following day, when the ship was away at sea. As a result, the alleged molester was not prosecuted under Florida law and was instead returned to his home in Goa, India, on Disney’s dime. The incident highlighted what Florida officials say is a dangerous loophole in the system.
According to the exhaustive investigation by WKMG, which first exposed the incident, security staff on the vessel began investigating an “inappropriate sexual act” at 3:22 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2012. Surveillance footage, which has since been released to the public, corroborates the young Brazilian girl’s story of how Milton Braganza grabbed her breast and forcibly kissed her in an open elevator about 20 minutes earlier. According to a confidential incident report the station obtained, at 3:57 p.m., the 11-year-old led a Disney Dream security officer to the spot where she encountered the suspect. At 4:48 p.m., the surveillance footage was shown to a dining manager, who identified the subject by name. At 5:02 p.m., the Disney Dream left Port Canaveral without reporting the incident to Florida authorities.
Disney Cruise Line officials did not pull Braganza off the dining room floor, where he worked as a waiter, until 7:50 p.m. that evening, according to the incident report. He allegedly denied molesting the young girl, and after another unsuccessful attempt to get him to confess on Aug. 6, he was handed over to authorities in the Bahamas on Aug. 7, two days after the incident occurred, where he finally confessed, “I touched her on her right breast with my left hand,” according to the Bahamas police.
The girl’s grandmother decided at that point that she wanted to move on and declined to have the crime investigated any further. Subsequently, Disney Cruise Line allegedly arranged for Braganza’s trip back to India, all expenses paid. Contrary to the evidence unearthed in the confidential incident report, Disney Cruise Line maintains that it did not know about the alleged crime until after the ship left Florida and “took proper action” in responding to the passenger’s allegations.
Were Disney to have reported the crime in a timely manner, Braganza would likely have faced a felony sentence of 25 years to life in prison, regardless of the grandmother’s wishes. The rules in the Bahamas, however, are different.
Once a ship travels beyond 24 miles from the U.S. coast, it’s ostensibly regulated by the International Maritime Organization, and its flag country. The IMO doesn’t have the authority to enforce its own guidelines, so these obligations fall to the flag countries (in this case the Bahamas) and are rarely enforced.
“Companies register their ships where the costs are lowest and the oversight and requirements are the least,” Dr. Ross Klein, who has testified before Congress numerous times on cruise-related issues and maintains the website Cruise Junkie, explained during an International Business Times investigation into cruise safety last month. “This directly impacts labor issues. A flag of convenience also impacts whether a ship is subject to the laws of the countries it visits or operates out of and also affects financial liability to passengers and crew.”
On his Cruise Junkie website, Klein states that sexual assaults on cruise ships are approximately 50 percent higher than on land. But the International Council of Cruise Lines, which is now part of CLIA, has reported that the rate of sexual assaults on cruise ships is just 17.6 per 100,000, compared to a U.S. rate of 32.2 per 100,000.
Either way, who has jurisdiction over cruise crimes and when remains murky, even for law enforcement. Facts like the nationality of the persons involved, location of the ship at the time of the incident, the ports it departs and arrives from and the country it is “flagged” to all play a roll in deciding what laws apply. As a result, Florida officials believe many cruise crimes go unresolved.