MELBOURNE, Australia – The former principal of a Jewish girls’ school in Australia was convicted Monday of sexually abusing two students, ending a nine-year legal battle that has 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 found guilty of 18 charges, including rape, and acquitted of nine other charges, including five related to the oldest student, Nicole Meyer. Three former students – Meyer, Dassie Ehrlich and Ellie Sapper – are all sisters.
Trial judge Mark Gamble issued a gag order preventing media reporting during the trial that Leifer had fought his extradition to Australia since the allegations first surfaced against him after his return to Israel in 2008. The legal battle he has waged in a Jerusalem court since 2014 ended in 2021 when he boarded a flight to Melbourne at Ben Gurion Airport, shackled on his ankles and wrists.
The News of Leifer’s extradition He was welcomed by lawmakers and Jewish community leaders in Australia.
As CBS News correspondent Ian Lee reported at the time, Leifer’s case highlights the extent to which Israel has been used as a safe haven for Jewish sex offenders around the world. Lee’s CBS News investigation It found that the problem was still widespread in 2020, and wanted men and women were difficult to prosecute because they often exploited a process called the Law of Return, whereby any Jewish person could move to Israel and automatically receive citizenship.
“There was a mechanism behind this campaign to prevent Malka Leifer from being extradited to Australia,” said Manny Walks, CEO of VoicesA, an Israel-based organization dedicated to combating child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, which worked with Leifer’s victims. told CBS News when he was extradited back to Australia in 2021. “What we saw in his case is that many senior rabbis are going to bat for him.”
Leifer sat with her head bowed, the jury watching, and did not react as the verdict was read. The two former students he was convicted of abusing, Erlich and Sapper, were in court for the verdict. Leifer previously pleaded not guilty to all 27 counts.
The Associated Press does not typically identify victims and alleged victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters chose to identify themselves to the media.
Prosecutors claimed Leifer abused students between 2003 and 2007 at Adas Israel School, an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne where he was head of religion and later principal, as well as at his Melbourne home and rural school camps.
Prosecutor Justin Lewis told jurors that Leifer was sexually attracted to the girls when they were teenage students at the school and when the same girls were student teachers. Leifer engaged in sexual activities with them and took advantage of their vulnerability, ignorance of sexuality and his own authority, Lewis said.
Defense lawyer Ian Hill argued that the long delay between the alleged offenses and the trial, which began in February, was a disadvantage for the defense and jurors. He attacked the credibility of the sisters, accusing one of telling “blatant lies” in her evidence.
The sisters were brought up in isolation within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and received no sex education, the court heard. When Leifer arrived at the school from Israel in 2001, they were about 12, 14 and 16.
Lewis said the sisters gave clear evidence that they did not understand the sexual nature of what Leifer had done to them.
Leifer allegedly abused older sister Meyer when they shared a bed at a school camp because middle brother Erlich pretended to sleep in the same room. Jurors were told that the younger sibling, Sapper, went into a room while Liefer was abusing Meyer.
“Mrs. Leifer was one of the most respected people in the community. If Mrs. Leifer had done anything, it must have been OK,” Sapper testified about the reaction to what he saw happen to his sister.
Ehrlich told the jury that he tried to approach another teacher to ask about what Leifer was doing, but Leifer discouraged him. Leifer “told me that it wasn’t healthy for me to have a relationship with another teacher, to have multiple mentors,” Ehrlich testified.
The sisters gave evidence for two weeks behind closed doors, barred from the public and the media as per rules governing sexual assault trials in Victoria.
Other witnesses included those whose sisters had voiced their grievances.
Ehrlich first spoke with social worker Chana Rabinowitz in Israel in early 2008. Rabinowitz said he asked the sister who hit her and the young woman replied, “It was Mrs. Leifer.”
Psychologist Vicki Gordon testified that she heard Sapper’s claims of abuse by Leifer. Gordon told the court that the sister claimed that Leifer interpreted the abuse as an attempt to overcome the lack of warmth and affection in the girls’ family life.
Hill told the jury that the sisters respected Leifer and wrote letters from their school years thanking him for supporting them. Hill said Erlich’s story has changed several times since the charges were filed in 2008.
“Truth and credibility are lost in false accounts,” Hill said. “Perhaps even at times hardened into false imaginations and false memories of false reality.”
He criticized Sapper for changing the location of the alleged crimes from the girls’ hometown of Melbourne to Israel.
“It’s the false memories combined with the details that show you how dangerous some witnesses can be when they’re telling you a story,” Hill said.
Walks, of the advocacy and support group, said the outcome was fraught with sadness because the allegations against Meyer were not substantiated.
“It’s a day … tinged with a lot of sadness because (Meyer) has fought for so many years and now to walk away with a not guilty verdict in his case is absolutely devastating and my thoughts go out to him in particular,” Walks Network 10 said. Told the television.
“With the time it took and the many challenges along the way, most people didn’t believe this day would actually come and it has come and it’s a great day for justice,” Walks said.
Mayer told reporters outside court that a guilty verdict was “what we wanted.”
“Since we started this battle, since we gave our police statement in 2011, to hear the word ‘criminal’ he has fought for so many years and we have fought so many years to prove it.” said
Walks said the legal process was challenging for the sisters until the verdict.
“The process the sisters went through is unique and difficult. I attended 75 court hearings in Israel just to get her extradited,” Walks said.
Leifer is due back in court on April 26 for a sentencing hearing.