By David Estcourt
Malka Leifer, the former principal of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne, has been found guilty of sexually abusing two former students after a 15-year campaign for her to face justice.
After a six-week trial in the County Court of Victoria, a jury on Monday found Leifer, 56, guilty of charges including rape, indecent assault and sexual penetration of a child aged 16 or 17 against two sisters. But they cleared her of all charges relating to a third sister.
The jury reached the verdict despite not being told about Leifer’s infamous escape to Israel when the allegations of abuse began to emerge in 2008. Her flight overseas sparked a drawn-out extradition process that strained relations between Australia and Israel, but she was ultimately brought back to Victoria in 2021.
Leifer will return to court on April 26 to fix a date for the plea, a pre-sentence hearing where prosecution and defence make legal argument about the appropriate length of her sentence.
Three sources close to the ultra-Orthodox community, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional and social repercussions for speaking with media, confirmed that Leifer has been subject to other allegations of sexual abuse separate to those made by the sisters.
They also expressed scepticism that, should those allegations be exposed now, they would be reported to police given the community’s preference to manage issues internally.
The high-profile case was also plagued by a breastfeeding scandal and the judge succumbing to COVID-19 shortly before jurors were due to retire and consider their verdict.
Leifer was found guilty of assaulting and raping sisters Elly Sapper and Dassi Erlich between 2003 and 2007, when the sisters were pupils of Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, part of a small enclave of ultra-conservative Jewish families in Melbourne’s inner south-east.
The jury found Leifer guilty of 18 rape and sexual assault charges and not guilty of nine. She was cleared of all charges relating to a third sister, Nicole Meyer.
Leifer, who has always maintained her innocence, remained stoic when the verdicts were read out, as she had been throughout the trial.
The sisters looked straight ahead. They talked in hushed tones before the jury entered the room, and fell silent when the 12 jurors took their seat shortly before 3.45pm.
The sisters have granted The Age permission to use their names.
The former principal’s prosecution became an international scandal when she was rushed out of the country in the middle of the night in March 2008 after allegations of her sexual abuse against students began to mount. She would not return to Victoria to face justice for more than 10 years.
“Sometimes it just amazes us when we look at the journey that it’s taken, for so long and for so many years, to get to this moment is absolutely overwhelming,” Erlich said outside the County Court on Monday, holding the hand of her sister, Meyer.
“When we look back at the journey that it took, everything that happened in Israel, it was so unbelievable that we get to this time and we have: she’s guilty, she’s guilty; that can’t be taken away, she is guilty.”
Meyer said it was the strength the sisters provided each other that allowed them to seek justice after so long.
“The strength of each other, of the wider community, the world really believing in our story and saying she deserves to get justice,” Meyer said.
Erlich said she was also motivated by allegations of abuse against Leifer that surfaced after she left Australia.
Halfway through the trial, Judge Mark Gamble ordered that Leifer be acquitted on two charges after evidence emerged that the dates of the alleged offending did not match those charged by investigators.
Leifer has been in custody since January 2021 when she returned to Australia, and was transported to court each day in the prison van away from public view. During the trial, she focused closely on her barrister Ian Hill, KC, and rarely looked at the jury.
She was extradited to Australia in January 2021 after a six-year legal battle that at times made the relationship between Australia and Israel uneasy, and angered Melbourne’s Jewish community, which was supportive of the sisters.
The jury was told Leifer had travelled between Israel and Australia but given no context about what prompted the travel, or whether it related to the allegations.
Time served in Israel may be considered in Leifer’s sentence in Australia.
During the trial, the sisters gave evidence in closed court, with only lawyers, the jury and the judge’s staff allowed to attend while they detailed the abuse Leifer perpetrated against them.
Social worker Chana Rabinowitz, one of the first people to hear the allegations of abuse from one of the sisters, did not give evidence in person in front of a jury.
Instead, a pre-recorded version of her evidence and cross-examination over video link was taken in closed court and played to the jury.
David Southwick, a Liberal MP in the Victorian parliament who has advocated for the sisters, said: “These verdicts represent the culmination of over two decades of suffering and unstoppable activism by so many caring people who simply wanted to see justice done.
“Today’s verdict finally brings closure for three brave women, after astonishing delays and setbacks that no victim of sexual abuse should ever have to endure.”
Manny Waks, an activist against child sexual abuse, thanked the sisters for sharing their personal story publicly.
“Today’s guilty verdict is a great day for justice and vindication of the courageous survivors … whose perseverance and dignity have been a hallmark of their long and extraordinary fight for justice,” said Waks, who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in a Jewish ultra-Orthodox community and is now head of VoiCSA, an organisation combating child sexual abuse within Jewish communities.
“We hope that today’s verdict provides them with some peace of mind and contributes to their long-term healing and wellbeing.”
Aaron Strasser, principal and chief executive of Adass Israel School, apologised to the sisters, saying the school was sorry for the distress the victims suffered and the impact of that abuse on their lives and families.
“We commend the survivors’ bravery in coming forward. The safety and wellbeing of students are our highest priorities. Adass Israel School complies fully with all child safety standards and regulations, and we have zero tolerance for abuse of any kind.”
Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said he hoped the verdict brought closure for the sisters, who “bravely fought for justice for many years”.
“It also brings closure for the Australian Jewish community, who have supported the brave survivors’ demands that Malka Leifer face justice in Australia.”
At the end of Leifer’s trial, Gamble ejected a breastfeeding woman from court, after the judge decided this would distract the jury at a crucial stage of the trial. Days later, he was forced to eject a second woman when she brought her baby to breastfeed in court as an act of protest over perceived sexism.
The jury was also shielded from the ongoing scandal which ended the ministerial career of senior Israeli politician Yaakov Litzman, who struck a plea deal with Israeli prosecutors after admitting to obstructing justice by hindering Leifer’s extradition from Israel to Australia.
Litzman, a former health minister and longtime ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was accused of pressuring ministry employees to alter psychiatric evaluations to make it appear that Leifer was unfit to stand trial.
Immediately after closing argument by prosecution and defence, Gamble tested positive for COVID-19, suspending the trial for six days.
If you need support, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
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