MELBOURNE, Australia — A former principal at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Australia was found guilty on Monday of sexually assaulting two sisters there, 15 years after she escaped arrest by fleeing to Israel.
After a seven-week trial and seven days of deliberations, the jury found Malka Leifer guilty of 18 charges, including rape and indecent assault, for sexually assaulting the two students, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper, in a series of incidents between 2003 and 2007. It cleared her of nine other charges, including several relating to a third sister, Nicole Meyer.
Leifer, 56, sat motionless and did not react as the verdicts were read. The judge will sentence her at a later date.
While victims of sexual assault are normally not identified publicly in the media, the three sisters waived their right to anonymity, leading a years-long public campaign to bring Leifer to justice.
Elrich and Sapper were in court for the verdict.
Leifer, an Israeli-born mother of eight, had pleaded not guilty in the Victoria state County Court to 27 sexual offenses that were allegedly committed at the Adass Israel School, where she was head of religion and later principal, and at her Melbourne home and at school camps in the rural Victorian towns of Blampied and Rawson between 2003 and 2007.
Manny Waks, who heads the VoiCSA abuse victims advocacy group and had accompanied the three sisters throughout the trials in Israel and Australia hailed Monday’s verdict.
“We are also mindful that there are several other alleged victims of Leifer who for one reason or another have chosen not to go through this process and we also have them in our thoughts,” he said.
Waks called on the Adass Israel School to issue an unequivocal public apology to the victims after their board helped whisk Leifer out of the country as charges came to light in 2008. Waks said Australian authorities should hold those involved in Leifer’s escape legally responsible
“What has happened at the Adass Israel School is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the prevalence of child sexual abuse in Jewish schools and institutions globally, he continued. “The Jewish community, like all communities, must acknowledge what is happening and put a stop to it. The greatest danger to the safety of the Jewish community comes from within Jewish institutions and not from external threats.”
The Zionist Federation of Australia welcomed the verdict. “We hope that the verdict brings much needed closure to Elly, Nicole and Dassi who bravely fought for justice for many years,” said president Jeremy Leibler. “It also brings closure for the Australian Jewish community who have supported the brave survivors’ demands that that Malka Leifer face justice in Australia. We continue to stand with Elly, Nicole and Dassi and all survivors of abuse in their fight for justice.”
However, Leibler singled out Israel, which held up Leifer’s extradition for years. “A key part of their trauma was the time it took to extradite Leifer back to Australia, and the clear evidence of political interference in that process. Israel must take action to ensure that such a travesty cannot recur,” he said.
Leifer’s trial came after a years-long struggle to have her extradited from Israel, which was nearly thwarted by then health minister Yaakov Litzmam, who was later convicted of pressuring a state psychiatrist to find Leifer mentally unstable.
The process, spanning more than 70 extradition hearings, put a strain on relations between Jerusalem and Canberra.
Prosecutor Justin Lewis had asked the 12 jurors to consider that Leifer, an Israeli-born mother of eight, showed sexual interest in the girls when they were teenage students at the school and later when they became student teachers there. He alleged that Leifer engaged in sexual activities with them and took advantage of their vulnerability and ignorance in sexual matters, and her position of authority.
The sisters had an isolated upbringing in Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox community and received no sexual education, the court heard. They were aged around 12, 14 and 16 when Leifer arrived at the school from Israel in 2001.
Lewis said the sisters had provided explicit evidence that they did not understand the sexual nature of what Leifer did to them. The abuse allegedly occurred at school camps and during private lessons on Sundays at the school and Leifer’s home.
According to an indictment, Leifer raped one student in 2006 after inviting her home to “sleep over for kallah lessons” — a kind of pre-wedding etiquette class that includes sexual education.
On other occasions Leifer told the students she was preparing them to be wives, Lewis told the court in his opening statement.
“This will help you for your wedding night,” Leifer said after one sexual assault, according to Lewis.
“This is what is good for you,” she allegedly said during another incident.
Leifer left the school abruptly in the middle of the year around the time that the allegations against her came to light.
The sisters gave evidence over two weeks behind closed doors, with the public and media excluded, according to rules governing sexual assault trials in Victoria.
Other witnesses included those to whom the sisters disclosed their allegations.
The middle sister first spoke to social worker Chana Rabinowitz in early 2008 in Israel. Rabinowitz said she asked the sister who hurt her and the young woman replied, “It was Mrs. Leifer.”
Psychologist Vicki Gordon testified that she heard the youngest sister claim abuse by Leifer. Gordon told the court the sister claimed Leifer had explained the abuse was an attempt to overcome a lack of warmth and affection in the girls’ family life.
Leifer’s lawyer Ian Hill told the jury the sisters had revered Leifer and writings from their school years showed them thanking her for being supportive. Hill said the middle sister’s story had changed several times since the allegations were made in 2008.
“Truth and reliability were lost in false accounts,” Hill said. “Perhaps even at times hardened into false imaginations and false memories of false realities.”
Hill denied that any of the sexual activity had taken place but did claim the sisters were old enough to legally consent to such acts related to the majority of the charges.
Leifer did not testify.
She had initially faced 29 charges. But two indecency charges relating to school play rehearsals were dropped during the trial because the incidents were alleged to have occurred before a relevant law came into effect in 2006.