Jurors retire to consider Malka Leifer abuse verdict

Karen Sweeney |

Jurors have begun deliberating over allegations former ultra-Orthodox Jewish principal Malka Leifer sexually abused three vulnerable students.

After nearly six weeks of evidence and addresses from lawyers, 12 jurors retired to consider their verdicts on Wednesday afternoon.

Leifer, 56, is facing 27 charges over the alleged abuse of Melbourne sisters Nicole Meyer, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper when she was head of religion and principal of the Adass Israel School in the city’s eastern suburbs between 2003 and 2007.

Leifer, a mother of eight, has pleaded not guilty and has faced trial in the Victorian County Court.

Two charges were dropped during the trial because they pre-dated relevant legislation.

Prosecutors Justin Lewis has asked the jurors to consider that Leifer had a tendency to have a sexual interest in girls when they were teenage students at the school, and when those same girls were student teachers.

He alleged she had a tendency to engage in sexual activities with them and take advantage of their vulnerability, ignorance in sexual matters and her position of authority in order to do so.

The sisters had an isolated upbringing in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and received no sexual education, the court heard.

Mr Lewis said the sisters had given explicit evidence that they did not understand the sexual nature of what Leifer did to them.

The abuse allegedly occurred on school camps and during private lessons on Sundays at the school and Leifer’s home.

Leifer allegedly abused Ms Meyer when they shared a bed on a school camp, while Ms Erlich was pretending to be asleep in the same room.

Jurors were told Ms Sapper had walked into a room while Leifer was abusing Ms Erlich.

“Mrs Leifer was one of the most respected persons in the community. If Mrs Leifer was doing something then it must be okay,” Ms Sapper said of seeing what was happening to her sister.

Ms Erlich told the jury she had tried to form a relationship with another teacher to ask about what Leifer was doing.

“(Leifer) told me it wasn’t healthy for me to have a connection with another teacher, to have more than one mentor,” she said.

The sisters gave evidence over two weeks behind closed doors.

Other witnesses included those they disclosed their allegations to.

Ms Erlich first spoke to social worker Chana Rabinowitz in Israel in early 2008.

Ms Rabinowitz said she asked Ms Erlich who hurt her and the young woman replied “it was Mrs Leifer”.

“She was very distraught,” she said.

“I remember that she was kind of hunched over into herself and she could only whisper what it was.”

Psychologist Vicki Gordon said she saw Ms Sapper over several months and she disclosed that Leifer would touch her all over her body and even though Leifer knew from the beginning that she didn’t like it, she would continue.

“She told me it was because I never had any warmth and affection from home – I was more needy than other girls and she was trying to help me get over it,” Dr Gordon read from her notes, quoting Ms Sapper.

Leifer’s barrister, Ian Hill KC, said the sisters had revered their former principal, and writing from the time showed them thanking her for being supportive.

He told jurors that Ms Erlich’s story had been constantly added to, developed and varied between the allegations being made in 2008 and the trial.

“Truth and reliability were lost in false accounts,” he said.

“Perhaps even at times hardened into false imaginations and false memories of false realities.”

He criticised Ms Sapper for changing the location of alleged incidents – first claiming something happened in Melbourne and later changing it to Israel.

“It’s the wrong memory combined with the detail that shows you just how dangerous some witnesses can be when recounting a narrative to you,” he said.