Former Jewish school principal found guilty of sexual abuse

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The former principal of a Jewish girls’ school in Australia has been found guilty of sexually abusing two students, ending a nine-year legal battle that strained relations between the Australian and Israeli governments while antagonising Australia’s Jewish community.

Malka Leifer, 56, a Tel Aviv-born mother-of-eight, was convicted on 18 counts, including rape, and acquitted of nine other charges, including five that related to the eldest student, Nicole Meyer.

The three former students – Ms Meyer, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper – are sisters. They have chosen to identify themselves in the media.

Trial judge Mark Gamble had issued an order preventing the media from reporting during the trial that Leifer had fought against her extradition to Australia following her return to Israel in 2008 as allegations against her first emerged.

Sisters who brought the allegations
Sisters Dassi Erlich, left, Elly Sapper and Nicole Meyer leave the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne (AAP Image via AP)

The news of Leifer’s extradition was welcomed in Australia by politicians and Jewish community leaders.

Leifer sat with her head tilted, watching the jury, and did not react as the verdicts were read. The two former students she was convicted of abusing, Ms Erlich and Ms Sapper, were in court for the verdicts.

She had earlier pleaded not guilty to all 27 counts.

Prosecutors claimed Leifer abused the students between 2003 and 2007 at the Adass Israel School, an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne where she was head of religion and later the principal, as well as at her Melbourne home and at rural school camps.

Court sketch of convicted principal
A courtroom sketch depicts former Melbourne school principal Malka Leifer at the County Court (Mollie McPherson/AAP Image via AP)

Mr Lewis said Leifer engaged in sexual activities with them and took advantage of their vulnerability, their ignorance in sexual matters, and her own position of authority.

Defence lawyer Ian Hill argued the lengthy delay between the alleged offences and the trial, which began in February, was a disadvantage to the defence and to jurors.

He attacked the credibility of the sisters, accusing one of telling “blatant lies” in her evidence.

The sisters had an isolated upbringing in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, the court heard. They were around 12, 14 and 16 when Leifer arrived at the school from Israel in 2001.

Malka Leifer
Leifer will be sentenced later this month (AP)

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

Manny Waks, head of advocacy group Voice Against Child Sex Abuse and a supporter of the three sisters, said the result was tinged with sadness because the allegations relating to Ms Meyer were not proven.

“The length of time it’s taken and the many challenges along the way… most people did not believe that this day would actually come and it has arrived, and it’s a great day for justice,” Mr Waks said.

Ms Meyer told reporters outside court that a guilty verdict was “all we’ve ever wanted”.

“Since we started this battle, since we gave our police statements in 2011, to hear the word ‘guilty’ is what she has fought not to be for so many years, and what we have fought for so many years to prove,” she said.

Mr Waks told Network 10 television that the legal process had been challenging for the sisters until the verdicts were delivered.

“The process that the sisters have gone through is unique and arduous. I attended 75 court hearings in Israel just to get her (Leifer) extradited,” Mr Waks said.

Leifer will return to court on April 26 for a sentencing hearing.

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