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Broken promises leave survivors in the lurch

More than a year on from a Treasury consultation on giving victims of child sexual abuse access to their abuser's superannuation for compensation purposes, little headway has been made. At the same time, experts say the government's proposals are redundant anyway.

Former Bega Cheese chief executive and purported multi-millionaire Maurice Van Ryn was found guilty of sexually abusing nine children over the span of a decade in 2016. Van Ryn was initially sentenced to 13 years in prison with a non-parole period of seven years; however, the Director of Public Prosecutions appealed, deeming the sentence "manifestly inadequate."

Consequently, it was increased to 18 years, with a non-parole period of 13 years and six months; he'll be eligible for parole in June 2028.

Last year, one of Van Ryn's victims sought compensation for the pain and suffering endured from the abuse inflicted upon him when he was a teenager. The Court found the victim was a "happy and well-adjusted" young man before the abuse, and a psychiatrist said they reported "significant depressive and anxiety symptoms", "intrusive memories of the sexual assault", and a "preoccupation with negative thoughts", including suicidal ideation.

The Court subsequently ordered Van Ryn to pay $1.4 million dollars in damages along with the victim's legal costs. But he may never see a cent of this money because the legal loophole by which offenders can hide their assets in superannuation accounts, which are protected from creditors, including victims seeking compensation, remains.

The problem was first called out back in 2018 by the Turnbull government's minister for revenue and financial services Kelly O'Dwyer, who decried how, for too long, perpetrators of horrific crimes have manipulated the system to shield their super assets from victims.

"... our government's full efforts are behind making sure that perpetrators are held to account, and we provide the sort of compensation that victims, quite rightly, demand and expect because we need them to be able to heal," she said.

O'Dwyer promised to introduce legislation that year to close the loophole; it didn't happen.

After years of inaction, the Albanese government reignited efforts to tackle this issue in January 2023.

Treasury released a discussion paper for consultation outlining a proposal that would make "additional" super contributions made by "convicted child sexual abusers" in the six or 12 months leading up to criminal proceedings to be made available to victims for the purposes of satisfying unpaid compensation orders.

Minister for financial services Stephen Jones said child abuse survivors and their advocates had long campaigned for this, but Websters Lawyers senior associate and Super for Survivors co-founder Andrew Carpenter, a long-time victims advocate, said the proposed changes won't achieve anything.

"The consultation paper only refers to additional contributions despite previous discussions being that the entirety of the offender's superannuation should be available for distribution to satisfy any civil claim, whether by judgement or settlement agreement," Carpenter submitted to Treasury.

"As we have seen with certain high-profile offenders, investigations sometimes last years prior to charges being laid. Thus, steps can be taken to capitulate assets once criminal investigations commence.

"In these circumstances, the proposed changes will be redundant."

Carpenter also blasted the requirement for a criminal conviction, pointing out that the Victorian Law Reform Commission found that for every 1000 children sexually assaulted, only about six cases result in a conviction.

"With that horrendous statistic about conviction rates in mind, we at Super for Survivors reaffirm that legislation needs to be enacted to ensure that all child abuse survivors can seek damages in the civil jurisdiction and be entitled to claim such damages from the superannuation of offenders. Absent these changes, the consultation paper will fall far short of providing justice," he said.

At the time, Jones said "the government will act quickly" to close the loophole. He said on national radio some laws would be drafted and they'd be in Parliament within three months - a commitment made nearly 18 months ago.

Financial Standard reached out to Jones for comment on the perceived inefficacies of Treasury's proposals and the delay. He sidestepped the question, reiterating only that the government is working to close the loophole.

Read more: Super for SurvivorsAndrew CarpenterFinancial StandardKelly O'DwyerMaurice Van RynStephen JonesWebsters Lawyers