WARNING: DISTRESSING CONTENT
Dark, emotionless eyes.
That’s what Riye Arai-Coupe remembers about coming face-to-face with her stepfather, more than 20 years after he last sexually abused her.
“There was not a single look of remorse on his face,” the 37-year-old said of the moment she saw him in court.
John Richard Daniel Voronoff was this week sentenced to seven-and-a-half years prison for the sexual abuse of four young girls between the ages of three and nine, including Riye, her sister Mika, and their friend, Ebony-Rose Greene.
All three women were under the care of Voronoff, who was aged in his 40s and 50s, when he abused them over 13 years between 1989 and 2002.
Each three women have waived their legal right to anonymity, giving news.com.au permission to share their powerful stories.
For Ms Arai-Coupe, the abuse lasted from ages seven to eleven.
“Child abuse is horrendous because … when you’re young, it does something to your psyche in terms of the guilt and the shame,” she said. “You live with it for life”.
The need to speak out had always been “eating up inside” her, but she worried about the emotional impact of court proceedings, having heard “horror stories” about justice not being served.
“But in the back of my mind, I wanted to do something,” she said.
When her own daughter reached the same age she was first abused — full of innocence and in need of the love and support every child deserves — the urge to come forward was too strong to keep ignoring.
“There were nights where I would look at her and break down and just be like (thinking), I can’t imagine her going through something similar,” she said.
“And then, just knowing that he was still on the streets, I just had this guilt that it was almost my fault that he was out there”.
So, the brave woman confronted her painful past and reported the abuse to police in 2021.
But nothing could prepare Ms Arai-Coupe for seeing Voronoff in court, sitting in the corner of the public waiting room.
“In my childhood, he was a really scruffy man … and this man that we saw in the courthouse was clean shaven — he’s aged, but was wearing a button up shirt, looking like any other grandfather you see in the street,” she said.
“And it made me sick to know that the horrors he has done in the past and how seamlessly he could fit in with the community, just looking like a normal man”.
But she was not afraid of him.
Staring straight into his “dark, emotionless” eyes, she read out her moving victim impact statement which she shared with news.com.au.
It included a letter to herself as a little girl.
“It breaks my heart knowing that from such a young age, you have had to learn to live with a ‘secret’ and a darkness where there should only ever have been love and light,” it read.
“It saddens me to know that for so many years you have had to live with such pain, guilt and trauma, and I wish you never had to live with the hurt and such distrust of others for the rest of your life”.
Two years on from the beginning of the emotionally gruelling court process, Ms Arai-Coupe was overwhelmed with relief to see Voronoff handcuffed and jailed.
“His imprisonment was a great outcome,” she said.
“It will never feel like it was enough, considering our entire lives have been affected, but we now have evidence to support that it wasn’t just in our heads and it’s not our fault.”
In choosing to put their names and faces to this story, Ms Arai-Coupe said she, Mika and Ms Greene hoped to empower other child abuse survivors to know their right to be heard and to fight for justice.
But she also acknowledged that she could not speak for others, and it was not a sign of weakness if survivors did not wish to come forward.
“Sometimes they might never have the strength or the will or the desire to do it,” she said. “But us sharing our story is for those women out there that haven’t had their own voice yet”.
Court records show Voronoff pleaded guilty to 24 sexual abuse charges relating to four victims, mostly relating to the indecent treatment of children under the age of 12.
He will be eligible for parole in 2026.