Washington - 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.
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 "SeaYear," where sophomore and junior midshipmen spend part of their academic year at sea working on primarily private merchant marine vessels learning first hand skills. "Many of these allegations involve a repeated pattern ofcrimes and intimidations committed by people in positions ofpower and responsibility on merchant ships, and include alleged poor oversight or policy failures of USMMA officials and CoastGuard investigators," Cantwell wrote.
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure chair Peter De Fazio 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 withAmerican authorities, Reuters reported Tuesday. A cadet, who has remained anonymous, wrote in a blog postthat she was a 19-year-old virgin when she was raped by a60-year-old 1st Engineer aboard the Maersk ship during Sea Year. Maersk Line Limited (MLL), a U.S.-based subsidiary of theA.P. Moller-Maersk group working with the U.S. government tosupport military, government and humanitarian missions,participates in the Sea Year program where it has trained 732cadets since 2017.
A MARAD spokesperson said the agency was aware of thealleged rape of the cadet, adding that USMMA referred it to theCoast Guard on Sept. 28. "We have zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexualharassment at USMMA and in the maritime industry," thespokesperson added. The Coast Guard said it was "aware of an allegation of sexual assault which occurred aboard a U.S.-flagged commercialcargo vessel and is currently investigating."