WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday urged the Transportation Department to take action to address persistent allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment made by midshipmen at the government’s main school for merchant mariners.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) speaks during a news conference after the first Democratic luncheon meeting since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. April 13, 2021. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo
Lawmakers said a “toxic culture” had allowed sexual abuse to fester and go unchallenged at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), which works with major shipping lines to prepare new recruits for a life at sea.
Senator Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Commerce Committee, said in a letter to the Maritime Administration (MARAD) that numerous alleged incidents occurred during midshipmen’s “Sea Year,” where sophomore and junior midshipmen spend part of their academic year at sea working on primarily private merchant marine vessels learning firsthand skills.
“Many of these allegations involve a repeated pattern of crimes and intimidations committed by people in positions of power and responsibility on merchant ships, and include alleged poor oversight or policy failures of USMMA officials and Coast Guard investigators,” Cantwell wrote.
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure chair Peter DeFazio and Salud Carbajal, chair of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommitte, said in a joint statement “this pattern of abuse in the maritime industry and the Sea Year program in particular has gone on far too long — we must reform the toxic culture that has allowed this problem to fester, and not stop until our seas are safe for everyone.”
The world’s largest shipping firm, A.P. Moller-Maersk, suspended five employees as part of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault on one of its ships run by a U.S. subsidiary, and said it was working closely with American authorities, Reuters reported Tuesday.
A cadet, who has remained anonymous, wrote in a blog post that she was a 19-year-old virgin when she was raped by a 60-year-old 1st Engineer aboard the Maersk ship during Sea Year.
Maersk Line Limited (MLL), a U.S.-based subsidiary of the A.P. Moller-Maersk group working with the U.S. government to support military, government and humanitarian missions, participates in the Sea Year program where it has trained 732 cadets since 2017.
A MARAD spokesperson said the agency was aware of the alleged rape of the cadet, adding that USMMA referred it to the Coast Guard on Sept. 28.
“We have zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment at USMMA and in the maritime industry,” the spokesperson added.
The Coast Guard said it was “aware of an allegation of sexual assault which occurred aboard a U.S.-flagged commercial cargo vessel and is currently investigating.”
Reporting by David Shepardson and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Stephen Coates