Malka Leifer, former principal of the Orthodox Jewish Adass Israel School in Melbourne, has been found guilty of sexually abusing two former students.
A jury in Victoria County Court found Leifer guilty of 18 charges of rape and sexual assault involving sisters Elly Sapper and Dassi Erlich. The jury acquitted Leifer of nine charges, including all involving a third sister, Nicole Meyer, and some involving Erlich.
Leifer’s trial was a long-term goal for Victorian and Australian authorities. Allegations of sexual assault were initially leveled against Leifer in late 2007 or early 2008. She fled to Israel in March 2008 and was eventually extradited to Australia in 2008. January 2021.
What were the charges?
Leifer was charged with 29 misdemeanor counts. At the trial, she was acquitted on two charges of indecent dealing with a 16 or 17 year old because the alleged offense occurred before the relevant law came into effect.
The jury was then instructed to consider 27 violationsincluding ten charges of rape, ten charges of indecent assault, three charges of penetration of a 16- or 17-year-old child, and one charge of forcible rape and assault with a 16- or 17-year-old.
Meyer, Erlich and Sapper alleged that Leifer sexually assaulted them between 2003 and 2007. The abuse was allegedly committed at school, at school camps and at Leifer’s home. The sisters were vulnerable abused by an authority figure, because their ultra-Orthodox upbringing made them ignorant of sexual matters.
The ABCs Australian story program profiled the sisters in 2018. It exposed the insular nature of the Adass Israel community and the extreme social and behavioral restrictions imposed on the sisters as children. Their family life would be controlled and terrifying.
Manny Waks, sister advocate and CEO of Voice against Child Sexual Abuse, said today:
We thank the sisters for sharing their deeply personal and difficult story so publicly, which has helped educate the public about the complexities of pursuing justice in the context of child sexual abuse, particularly within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. community.
Read more: Explainer: what is cross-country extradition and how does it work?
A controversial test
Remarkably, Leifer was convicted by a jury that was not fully aware of her attempts to do so evade justice.
When allegations against Leifer emerged in 2008, she fled to Israel with her family. The Adass Israel school funded her trip. Leifer lived in the community for several years.
Australia submitted an extradition request to Israel in 2013. She was arrested by Israeli police in 2014, but was later released on bail. For several years, Leifer claimed she was too unwell to attend court hearings and was assessed by more than 30 psychiatrists.
In 2018, she was taken into custody again when it became known that she had been living normally in an Orthodox Israeli settlement. In October 2019, she was placed under house arrest at her sister’s home on bail. It took September 2020 for the Israeli Supreme Court to rule that Leifer was fit to stand trial on charges in Victoria.
Read more: Israel’s Supreme Court has cleared the way for Malka Leifer’s extradition hearing. What happens now?
Leifer successfully halted the trial for an inordinate amount of time. Between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2020, more than 60 court hearings were held to avoid extradition and prosecution.
The first ruling on the merits of the extradition request came in September 2020, when the Jerusalem court ruled that Leifer should be extradited to Australia to face the charges against her.
It is not uncommon for extradition issues to be highly politicised. This case strained relations between Australia and Israel. No doubt the federal and Victorian governments will welcome today’s verdict after their years of concerted action to bring Leifer to justice.
A particularly controversial aspect of the saga culminated in the 2022 conviction of former Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman for obstruct justice in Leifer’s case. Litzman had been pressuring state officials to change Leifer’s psychiatric evaluations to support her claim that she was not fit to stand trial. He was subsequently convicted of the lowest charge breach of trust as part of a plea deal to avoid a custodial sentence.
What comes next?
Leifer maintained her innocence at trial. She is due back in court on April 26 to set a plea date. Then she will be punished. It is possible that the time Leifer spent in custody in Israel could be taken into account in determining a custodial sentence.
Once Leifer is sentenced by a judge, the court is expected to publish comments on the sentencing. It is possible that Leifer will choose to appeal the jury’s verdict. No such plan has been announced at this time.
Either way, today’s outcome is a hugely important milestone. As Victorian Liberal MP David Southwick, who has argued for Leifer’s accusers, said:
These verdicts represent the culmination of more than two decades of suffering and unstoppable activism by so many caring people who simply wanted justice to be done. Today’s verdict finally brings an end to three brave women, after astonishing delays and setbacks that no victim of sexual abuse should ever experience.
Nicole Meyer, Elly Sapper and Dassi Erlich have agreed to be identified in the media.
For support, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Counseling Service at 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).