Fr. Sinclair Oubre
North American Maritime Ministry Association

at the National Press Club
June 13, 1996

The North American Maritime Ministry Association is a federation of port chaplains and seafarer centers located throughout Canada and the United States. Our members represent a true cross section of North American Christian life, but we are all drawn together in our common call from Jesus to a ministry of hospitality. Climbing the gang ways of ships in ports on every coast, the words: What you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me., moves us to welcome with love, support and peace all those who come to our shore on ships.

At our 1995 plenary meeting in Toronto, one of our members made us aware of the recently passed legislation called Cruise Ship Tort Reform. On investigating the potential effects that this legislation would have on seafarers from foreign lands in obtaining justice, we were moved to pass a resolution asking that this part of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act not be included in the Senate version of the bill. We also asked our chaplains and seafarer centers to actively correspond with their Senators and their Representatives regarding our concerns.

The resolution read:

Whereas the U.S. House of Representatives adopted the coast Guard Authorization bill (HR 1361) on May 9, 1995

Whereas HR 1361 contains Section 430 that if enacted would deny many foreign seafarers access to United States courts to protect their rights to medical care when sick or injured, and death benefits,

Therefore, be it resolved that the North American maritime Ministry Association strongly opposes the provision of the Section 430 of HR 1361 and any other proposal that would place limitations on any seafarersís access to the courts of the United States or any other country to protect his or her rights.

We have seen over the last twenty years radical changes in the maritime industry that have brought about unexpected consequences on the life and conditions of seafarers. With the rise and dominance of Flag of Convenience shipping, the unity that had once existed between the registry of the ship, the owner and the nationality of the crew members has been broken, and with that the system of checks and balances that had in the past protected especially the seafarers has been undermined. The Cruise Ship Tort Reform legislation was looked upon by our members as an attempt to strip from the seafarer one of his or her last avenues for justice.

Drawing on a Christian tradition of social teaching drawn from Scripture itself, we recognized a special obligation to work for justice on behalf, for and with the seafarer. Over one hundred years ago, Pope Leo XIII articulated the concern that motivates us today, when he said:

When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration. The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State. It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the government." (33) Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum 1891

Since the seafarer on cruise ships are mostly drawn from countries in the Third World which have tremendous poverty and unemployment, it is impossible for us to imagine him or her being able to travel from Manila to Monrovia, Liberia or Panama City, Panama in order to press his or her claim for justice against a ship registered in that country but sailing regularly from Miami or Port Everglades.

Our concern is also that this is not just a cruise ship issue. Once it is established as a point in law that foreign seafarers on cruise ships cannot have access to U.S. courts, it is a very small step to extend that to lightering ships which run from our oil refining cities to off load tankers just off the coast. These ships seldom travel to a foreign ports, but instead shuttle back and forth between super tankers and land based refineries. Then to take the final step and deny access to U.S. courts to all foreign merchant seafarers.

The words of Jesus ring in our ears. What you do for the least of my brother or sister you do for me. If Cruise Ship Tort Reform is allowed to become the law of the land, those who are the least powerful in the maritime industry will lose one of their last avenues for protection and justice not only in the United States, but in the world.

I wish to close with the words of Pope John Paul II from his encyclical Centisimus Annus:

58. Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice. Justice will never be fully attained unless people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity for showing kindness and a chance for greater enrichment." Centisimus Annus, Pope John Paul II, 1991