MELBOURNE, Australia – The former principal of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Australia was found guilty Monday of sexually assaulting three sisters there, 15 years after she escaped arrest by fleeing to Israel.
A jury found Malka Leifer guilty of 18 charges, including rape and indecent assault, but acquitted her of nine other charges.
Leifer, 56, pleaded not guilty in the County Court of Victoria state to 27 sexual offenses alleged to have been committed at the Adass Israel School, where she was head of religion and later principal, and at her home in Melbourne and at school camps under countryside Victorian 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 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.
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.
“Truth and credibility have been lost in false accounts,” Hill said. “Perhaps even sometimes hardened into false imaginations and false memories of false realities.”
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.
Leifer did not testify.
She initially 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.
Leifer’s trial came after a years-long struggle to have her extradited from Israel, when a court ruled she was mentally ill enough to avoid facing justice.