MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The former principal of a Jewish girls school in Australia was found guilty Monday of sexually abusing two students, ending a nine-year legal battle that strained relations between the Australian and Israeli governments while antagonizing Australia’s Jewish community.
Malka Leifer, 56, a Tel Aviv-born mother of eight, was convicted on 18 counts, including rape, and acquitted of nine other charges, including five that related to the eldest student, Nicole Meyer. The three former students — Meyer, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper — are all sisters.
Trial judge Mark Gamble had issued a gag order preventing media reporting during the trial that Leifer had fought against her extradition to Australia following her return to Israel in 2008 as allegations against her first emerged. The legal battle she waged in Jerusalem courts since 2014 ended in 2021 when she boarded a flight toward Melbourne at Ben Gurion Airport, her ankles and wrists shackled.
The news of Leifer’s extradition was welcomed in Australia by lawmakers and Jewish community leaders.
Leifer sat with her head tilted, watching the jury, and did not react as the verdicts were read. The two former students she was convicted of abusing, Erlich and Sapper, were in court for the verdicts. Leifer had earlier pleaded not guilty to all 27 counts.
The Associated Press does not usually identify victims and alleged victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters have chosen to identify themselves in the media.
Prosecutors claimed Leifer abused the students between 2003 and 2007 at the Adass Israel School, an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne where she was head of religion and later principal, as well as at her Melbourne home and at rural school camps.
Prosecutor Justin Lewis told jurors that Leifer tended to have a sexual interest in girls when they were teenage students at the school and when those same girls were student teachers. Lewis said Leifer engaged in sexual activities with them and took advantage of their vulnerability, ignorance in sexual matters, and her own position of authority.
Defense lawyer Ian Hill argued the lengthy delay between the alleged offenses and the trial, which began in February, was a disadvantage to the defense and to jurors. He attacked the credibility of the sisters, including accusing one of telling “blatant lies” in her evidence.
The sisters had an isolated upbringing in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and received no sexual education, the court heard. They were 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.
Leifer allegedly abused the eldest sister, Meyer, while they shared a bed at a school camp as the middle sibling, Erlich, pretended to be asleep in the same room. Jurors were told the youngest sibling, Sapper, walked into a room while Leifer was abusing Meyer.
“Mrs. Leifer was one of the most respected persons in the community. If Mrs. Leifer was doing something then it must be OK,” Sapper testified about her reaction to what she saw happening to her sister.
Erlich 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,” Erlich testified.
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 whom the sisters disclosed their allegations to.
Erlich 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 Sapper 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.
Hill told the jury the sisters had revered Leifer and writings from their school years showed them thanking her for being supportive. Hill said Erlich’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 Sapper for changing the location of alleged offenses 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.
Manny Waks, head of advocacy group Voice Against Child Sex Abuse and a supporter of the three sisters, said the result was tinged with sadness because the allegations relating to Meyer were not proven.
“It is a day … tinged with a great deal of sadness because the fight that (Meyer) has put up over the many years and now to walk away with not guilty verdicts in relation to her case is absolutely devastating and my thoughts are certainly with her in particular,” Waks told Network 10 television.
“The length of time it’s taken and the many challenges along the way, most people did not believe that this day would actually come and it has arrived and it’s a great day for justice,” Waks said.
Meyer told reporters outside court that a guilty verdict was “all we’ve ever wanted.”
“Since we started this battle, since we gave our police statements in 2011, to hear the word ‘guilty’ is what she has fought not to be for so many years, and what we have fought for so many years to prove,” she said.
Waks said the legal process had been challenging for the sisters until the verdicts were delivered.
“The process that the sisters have gone through is unique and arduous. I attended 75 court hearings in Israel just to get her extradited,” Waks said.
Leifer will return to court April 26 for a sentencing hearing.