Former Melbourne ultra-Orthodox school principal Malka Leifer exploited the vulnerability of her victims and warned one of them that she would publicize the girl’s problems at home if she disclosed Leifer’s abuse, a prosecutor told an Australian court in his opening statement on Wednesday.
Leifer, 56, has pleaded not guilty in the Victoria state County Court to 29 sexual offenses that were allegedly committed at the Adass Israel School and at her Melbourne home, as well as at school camps in the Victorian rural towns of Blampied and Rawson between 2003 and 2007.
Prosecutor Justin Lewis told the court that during Leifer’s time at Adass, she sought out her victims — sisters Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper.
Leifer treated the girls as her favorites and arranged regular times to be alone with them, including at her office and home where she offered them private lessons, the court heard.
Lewis said Leifer had a tendency to “take advantage of their vulnerability, ignorance in sexual matters and her position of authority.”
The girls came from a sheltered environment within Melbourne’s Hasidic community. The family did not have a television, newspapers, magazines or access to the internet at home. “It was not acceptable within the community to say anything against a person of high standing in the community, especially as a child,” Lewis said. “As a result of being raised in an ultra-Orthodox community, the three complainants did not have any knowledge or understanding of sex throughout the period of the alleged offending.”
The charges comprise 10 counts of rape, 10 counts of indecent assault, three counts of sexual penetration of a 16-year-old or 17-year-old child, five counts of an indecent act with a 16-year-old or 17-year-old child and one of rape by compelled sexual penetration.
According to the indictment, Leifer raped one student after inviting her home to “sleep over for kallah lessons” — a kind of pre-wedding etiquette class that includes sexual education.
“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.
In a subsequent incident that took place during a school retreat, Leifer shared a bed with the oldest sister and got on top of her in order to abuse her in the middle of the night, thinking that the younger sister — who was sleeping in another bed in the same room — had been asleep, the jury heard.
Lewis said the older sister had “no idea what the accused was doing because she had no knowledge about sex” but that she still felt “scared and uncomfortable.”
The prosecution alleged that Leifer used the bedroom of one of her eight children to rape the youngest sister.
The eldest sister “felt too scared to move and scared of what the consequences would be if she told the accused to stop, especially because of the high esteem in which the accused was held within the school,” Lewis said.
Lewis told the court the three students had a sheltered upbringing that made it difficult to raise the alarm about Leifer, who was a highly respected teacher.
One of the students told Leifer that her mother had been physically and verbally abusive at home, the court heard.
Leifer would later use this information to discourage the student 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 [Erlich] was in fear of the accused.”
But while she also 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.”
As the abuse continued, one of the sisters sought to establish a relationship with another teacher at the school in order to ask whether what she was enduring was normal. But Leifer found out about the attempt and “became jealous,” telling the girl that she was not allowed to establish a connection with any other teachers, the jury was told.
Erlich, the youngest sister, disclosed the abuse to her therapist in 2008. When the therapist asked who the assailant was, a distraught Erlich whispered that it was Leifer, Lewis said.
Leifer left the school abruptly in the middle of the year around the time that the allegations against her came to light.
In his statement, Leifer’s attorney Ian 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 in 21 of the 29 charges.
Hill said one of the sisters had told Gordon “she believed she had lost her virginity” to a man while in high school. A former husband of another sister would testify that he had overheard his wife say that Rabinowitz “made a big deal” about her relationship with Leifer and was “taking it out of all proportion,” Hill said.
Hill added that Leifer told a fellow teacher in 2008 that she had “done nothing wrong.”
“There will be other evidence about the positive, glowing, appropriate relationship between the three sisters and Mrs. Leifer,” Hill told the jury. “An issue will become as to whether, in fact, they took on Mrs. Leifer, in effect, as a substitute parent in view of what was happening at home.”
“Another issue in the case will be whether each of the sisters’ evidence contains inconsistencies, not minor inconsistencies but material inconsistencies, that will affect your assessment of the credibility, and the reliability of the evidence,” he said. “We deny that they are telling the truth.”
“Above all, what we ask of you is this: keep an open mind until you have heard all of the evidence.”
The sisters are expected to begin testifying when the trial resumes on Thursday. Media are not allowed to report the testimonies of alleged victims of sexual assault in Victoria.
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.
The trial is scheduled to take six weeks.