Jury deliberation begins in Australian sex abuse trial for Israeli principal Leifer


MELBOURNE, Australia – An Australian jury retired Wednesday to consider its verdict after a six-week trial of a former principal at Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls’ school accused of molesting three sisters.

Malka Leifer, 56, pleaded not guilty in the Victoria County Court to 27 alleged sexual offenses at the Adass Israel School, where she was head of religion and later principal, and at her home in Melbourne and at school camps in the the Victorian country towns of Blampied and Rawson between 2003 and 2007.

Prosecutor Justin Lewis asked the 12 jurors to consider that Leifer, an Israeli-born mother of eight, showed a sexual interest in the girls when they were teenagers at the school and later when they became trainee teachers there. . He alleged that Leifer engaged in sexual activities with them and that he took advantage of their vulnerability and ignorance in sexual matters, and of their position of authority.

The sisters had isolated upbringings in Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox community and received no sex education, the court heard. They were aged around 12, 14 and 16 when Leifer came to the school from Israel in 2001.

Lewis said the sisters provided clear evidence that they did not understand Leifer’s sexual behavior towards them. The abuse allegedly took place at school camps and during private lessons on Sundays at the school and at Leifer’s home.

Leifer allegedly abused the older sibling while they were sharing a bed at a school camp because the middle sibling pretended he was sleeping in the same room. Jurors were told the younger sibling walked into a room while Leifer was abusing the older sibling.

General opinion is expressed in the County Court in Melbourne on February 8, 2023, where Malka Leifer, the former principal of an ultra-orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne, went on trial on charges that she sexually assaulted three female students. (William WEST/AFP)

“Mrs. Leifer was one of the most respected people in the community. If Mrs. Leifer was doing something it must be right,” the youngest sibling testified about her reaction to the which she saw happen to her sister.

The middle sister told the jury that she tried to approach another teacher to ask what Leifer was doing, but Leifer discouraged her. “Leifer told me it wasn’t healthy for me to have a bond with another teacher, to have more than one mentor,” said the middle sister.

One of the sisters told Leifer that their mother was physically and verbally abusive at home, the court heard.

Leifer would later use this information to dissuade her from filing a complaint, Lewis said. “The accused implied… if she told anyone what was happening, she would tell everyone about her family life and what her mother did, and [she] he was afraid of the accused.”

But while Leifer allegedly scared her alleged victims a lot, Lewis said she also complimented them, told them they were beautiful and that she loved them like a daughter. Lewis said she would cradle one of the victims like a baby several times.

She also gave one of them a cell phone to contact her to schedule private lessons. Lewis said she told the complainant “she loved her and not to tell anyone what they were doing.”

Malka Leifer (YouTube screenshot)

Leifer abruptly left the school in the middle of the year around the time the allegations against her came to light.

The sisters testified over two weeks behind closed doors, with the public and media excluded, in accordance with rules governing sexual assault trials in Victoria.

Other witnesses included those to whom the sisters disclosed their allegations.

The middle sister first spoke to social worker Chana Rabinowitz in Israel in early 2008. 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 the younger sister claim abuse by Leifer. Gordon told the court the sister claimed Leifer explained the abuse was an attempt to overcome a lack of warmth and affection in the girls’ family life.

Leifer’s lawyer, Ian Hill, told the jury that the sisters admired Leifer and wrote letters from their school years thanking them for being supportive. Hill said the middle sister’s story has been changed several times since the allegations were made in 2008.

Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls’ school principal Malka Leifer (left) with her students, including Nicole Meyer (center) in 2003. (Courtesy)

“Truth and credibility have been lost in false accounts,” Hill said. “Perhaps even sometimes hardened into false imaginations and false memories of false realities.”

He criticized the younger sister for changing the location of the alleged incidents from the girls’ hometown of Melbourne to Israel.

“It’s the wrong memory combined with the details that shows you how dangerous witnesses can be in telling you a story,” Hill said.

Hill denied that any sexual activity had taken place but claimed that the sisters were old enough to legally consent to such acts which were involved in most of the charges.

A general view shows the County Court (T) in Melbourne on February 8, 2023, where Malka Leifer, a former principal of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne, went on trial on charges that she sexually assaulted three female students. (William WEST/AFP)

The defense attorney said one of the sisters told Gordon she “believed she lost her virginity” to a man while at school.

Hill also said Leifer told a fellow teacher in 2008 that she “did nothing wrong.”

Leifer did not testify.

She originally faced 29 charges. But two indecency charges relating to school play exercises were dropped during the trial because the incidents allegedly took place before the relevant law came into force in 2006.

Judge Mark Gamble has imposed a gag order restricting media reporting on certain aspects of the case. The details of these restrictions cannot be reported.

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