Australia: Ex-Jewish school principal guilty of sexual abuse

MELBOURNE, Australia –

The former principal of a Jewish girls’ school in Australia was found guilty on Monday of sexually abusing two students, ending a nine-year legal battle that has strained relations between the Australian and Israeli governments and caused against the Jewish community in Australia.

Malka Leifer, 56, a Tel Aviv-born mother of eight, was convicted of 18 counts, including rape, and acquitted of nine other counts, five of which are related to oldest student, Nicole Meyer. The three former students – Meyer, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper – are all sisters.

Trial Judge Mark Gamble issued a gag order preventing media from reporting during the trial that Leifer had fought against her extradition to Australia after she returned to Israel in 2008 when the charges were raised. against her first appeared. The legal battle she has waged in the courts in Jerusalem since 2014 ended in 2021 when she boarded a flight to Melbourne at Ben Gurion Airport, her ankles and wrists shackled.

News of Leifer’s extradition was welcomed by lawmakers and Jewish community leaders in Australia.

Leifer sat with his head tilted to watch the jury and did not react when the verdict was read. Two former students she was found guilty of abusing, Erlich and Commando, went to court to receive the verdict. Leifer previously pleaded not guilty to all 27 counts.

The Associated Press usually does not identify victims and alleged victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters have chosen to identify themselves in the media.

Prosecutors allege Leifer abused students between 2003 and 2007 at Adass Israel School, an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne where she was religious head and then principal, as well as at home. her in Melbourne and at rural school camps.

Prosecutor Justin Lewis told the jury that Leifer tended to be sexually interested in girls when they were teenagers at school and when those girls were 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 power.

Defense attorney Ian Hill argued that the lengthy delay between the alleged offenses and the trial, which began in February, was a disadvantage for the defense and the jury. He attacked the sisters’ credibility, including accusing one of telling “blatant lies” in her evidence.

The court said the sisters had grown up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and had received no sex education. They were around 12, 14 and 16 when Leifer arrived at school from Israel in 2001.

Lewis said the sisters provided clear evidence that they did not understand the sexual nature of what Leifer did to them.

Leifer allegedly abused the eldest sister, Meyer, when they shared a bed at a school camp while the second brother, Erlich, pretended to sleep in the same room. The jury learned that the youngest brother, Sapper, entered the room while Leifer was abusing Meyer.

“Mrs. Leifer is one of the most respected people in the community. If Mrs. Leifer is doing something then surely everything will be fine,” Sapper testified of her reaction to what she saw happening. with her sister.

Erlich told the jury that she tried to establish a relationship with another teacher to ask about what Leifer was doing, but Leifer stopped her. Leifer “told me it wasn’t good for me to have a relationship with another teacher, having more than one mentor,” Erlich testified.

The sisters gave evidence for more than two weeks behind closed doors, with the public and media excluded under the rules governing sexual assault trials in Victoria.

Other witnesses include people to whom the sisters have disclosed their allegations.

Erlich first spoke with social worker Chana Rabinowitz in early 2008 in Israel. Rabinowitz said she asked the sister who hurt her and the young woman replied: “It’s Mrs. Leifer.”

Psychologist Vicki Gordon testified that she heard Sapper claim to be abused by Leifer. Gordon told the court that her sister testified that Leifer had interpreted the abuse as an attempt to remedy the girls’ lack of warmth and affection in their home lives.

Hill told the jury that the sisters revere Leifer and that writings from their school years show them thanking her for her support. Hill said Erlich’s story has changed several times since the allegations were made in 2008.

“Truth and credibility have been lost in the fake accounts,” says Hill. “Perhaps even sometimes hardening into false fantasies and false memories of false realities.”

He criticized Sapper for changing the location of the alleged crime from the girls’ hometown of Melbourne to Israel.

“It’s the false memory combined with the detail that shows you how dangerous it is for some witnesses to tell you the story,” says Hill.

Manny Waks, head of the advocacy group Voice Against Child Sexual Abuse and an advocate for the three sisters, said the results were tinged with sadness because the allegations involving Meyer were unproven.

“It was a day… tinged with sadness because of the struggle that (Meyer) has had for years and now having to go with verdicts of not guilty in relation to her case is overwhelming. devastating and my thoughts are certainly with her in particular,” Waks told Network 10 TV.

“With such a long time and many challenges along the way, most people don’t believe that this day will really come and it has come and it’s a great day for justice,” Waks said.

Meyer told reporters outside court that a guilty verdict is “all we want.”

“Ever since we started this fight, ever since we made our statement to the police in 2011, hearing the word ‘guilty’ is something she has struggled to not exist. for years and is something we’ve struggled for years to prove,” she said. speak.

Waks said the legal process had been difficult for the sisters until a verdict was reached.

“The process the sisters went through was unique and arduous. I attended 75 trials in Israel just to extradite her,” Waks said.

Leifer will return to court on April 26 for sentencing.

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