An Australian jury retired on Wednesday to consider its verdict following the six-week trial of a former principal of a Melbourne ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls school accused of molesting three sisters.
Malka Leifer, 56, has 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.
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.
Leifer allegedly abused the eldest sister while they shared a bed at a school camp as the middle sibling pretended to be asleep in the same room. Jurors were told the youngest sibling had walked into a room while Leifer was abusing the oldest sister.
“Mrs. Leifer was one of the most respected persons in the community. If Mrs. Leifer was doing something then it must be okay,” the youngest sibling testified about her reaction to what she saw happening to her sister.
The middle sister told the jury she had tried to form a relationship with another teacher to ask about what Leifer was doing, but Leifer discouraged her. Leifer “told me it wasn’t healthy for me to have a connection with another teacher, to have more than one mentor,” the middle sister testified.
One of the sisters told Leifer that her mother had been physically and verbally abusive at home, the court heard.
Leifer would later use this information to discourage her from making a complaint, Lewis said. “The accused implied… that if she told anyone what was happening, she would tell everyone about her family life and what her mother did, and [she] was in fear of the accused.”
But while Leifer allegedly instilled a great deal of fear in her alleged victims, Lewis said she also showered them with praise, told them they were beautiful and that she loved them like a daughter. Lewis said she would cradle one of the victims like a baby on several occasions.
She also gave one of them a cellphone in order to contact her to schedule private lessons. Lewis said she told the complainant that “she loved her and not to tell anyone what they were doing.”
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 Israel in early 2008. 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.”
He criticized the youngest sister for changing the location of alleged incidents from the girls’ hometown of Melbourne to Israel.
“It’s the wrong memory combined with the detail that shows you just how dangerous some witnesses can be when recounting a narrative to you,” Hill said.
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.
The defense attorney said one of the sisters had told Gordon “she believed she had lost her virginity” to a man while in high school.
Hill added that Leifer told a fellow teacher in 2008 that she had “done nothing wrong.”
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.
Judge Mark Gamble has imposed a gag order that restricts media reporting on certain aspects of the case. Details of those restrictions cannot be reported.