'Callous' headmistress jailed for sexual abuse at Australian Jewish school

24 Aug 2023 11:20am
Photo for illustrative purposes only - 123RF
Photo for illustrative purposes only - 123RF

MELBOURNE - An ex-headmistress who sexually abused two sisters at an Australian Jewish school, before fleeing to Israel then being extradited back, was sentenced on Thursday to 15 years in jail.

Sentencing judge Mark Gamble said Malka Leifer abused her position within Melbourne's ultra-orthodox community and her "insidious offending" had scarred the sisters for life.

Mother-of-eight Leifer fled to Israel when rumours of her crimes started swirling in 2008, fighting tooth-and-nail to halt her extradition across more than 70 separate hearings.

The dual Israeli-Australian citizen was hauled back to Australia in 2021 and was earlier this year found guilty on 18 charges of sexual assault against sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper.

A jury acquitted Leifer of sexually assaulting a third sister, Nicole Meyer.

In a victim impact statement read out to the court on Thursday, Sapper said the abuse had left her feeling "utterly broken", "ashamed" and haunted by "vivid flashbacks".

"She continues to blame herself for allowing Ms Leifer to love her. She feels ashamed for not stopping the abuse at the time," said Gamble, reading from the statement.

Wearing a light blue prison jumpsuit, Leifer was impassive as she watched the sentencing via video link from a maximum security prison in Melbourne.

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Gamble said Leifer was a "serious sexual offender" who had shown a "callous indifference" to the suffering of her victims.

She will be eligible for parole after 11 years.

The charges spanned from 2004 to 2007 when Leifer was in charge of the Addass Israel School in Melbourne and the two sisters were teenagers.

The school is part of a reclusive Jewish sect on the outskirts of the city.

"It was a life in which Jewish laws and customs were very important and strictly adhered to," Gamble said.

"The only books they had access to at home were those that were approved by their parents and written by Jewish authors."

Gamble said this stifling environment, and Leifer's high standing in the Addass community, made it extremely difficult for the sisters to come forward.

According to an indictment, Leifer assaulted one of the sisters in 2006 after inviting her home to "sleep over for kallah lessons" -- a kind of pre-wedding etiquette class that includes sexual education.

On other occasions, Leifer told the students she was preparing them to be wives, prosecutors told the court earlier this year.

"This will help you for your wedding night," Leifer said after one sexual assault, according to Lewis.

"This is what is good for you," she allegedly said during another incident.

- 'Professional and proper' -

Leifer fled Australia in 2008 after one of the sisters confided in her therapist about the sexual assaults.

She eventually settled in the ultra-orthodox Emmanuel settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Australian police filed charges against her in 2012 and requested her extradition from Israel two years later, sparking a lengthy legal saga.

Leifer claimed that crippling depression had left her catatonic and that she was mentally incapable of standing trial.

The extradition process was suspended -- until a private investigator secretly filmed Leifer going about her daily chores, apparently unafflicted by the mental illnesses she claimed.

Defence lawyer Ian Hill previously said Leifer denied "all of the criminal conduct alleged by each of the complainants" and that her interactions with the students were "professional and proper". - AFP