Australian prosecutor alleges principal molested 3 sisters
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A former principal of a ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls school in the Australian city of Melbourne molested three sisters, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Malka Leifer, 56, has pleaded not guilty in the Victoria state County Court to 29 sexual offenses that were allegedly committed at the Adass Israel School and at her Melbourne home as well as at school camps at the Victorian rural towns of Blampied and Rawson between 2003 and 2007.
The school was excited by Tel Aviv-born Leifer’s arrival from Israel in 2001, when the sisters were aged around 12, 14 and 16, prosecutor Justin Lewis told the jury in his opening address.
“The complainants were aware that the accused had been brought over to Australia from Israel to teach by the school because of her good reputation,” Lewis said.
Leifer was married with eight children, two of them born in 2004 and 2005 while she was at the school, Lewis said.
She began as head of religious studies at the school and in 2003 became the principal. She decided to give the sisters teaching positions after they finished their final year of high school.
Leifer had a tendency to “take advantage of their vulnerability, ignorance in sexual matters and her position of authority,” Lewis said.
The girls came from a sheltered environment within Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. The family did not have a television, newspapers, magazines or access to the internet at home, Lewis said.
“It was not acceptable within the community to say anything against a person of high standing in the community, especially as a child,” Lewis said. “As a result of being raised in an ultra-Orthodox community, the three complainants did not have any knowledge or understanding of sex throughout the period of the alleged offending.”
“As part of their religious and cultural practices, the complainants were not taught anything about sex until they were engaged to be married,” he added.
Leifer sat in a dock at the back of the court room wearing a long black skirt, a black and gold sweater and a black wrap over her hair, holding a small black book in her hands.
The eldest sister was a student and then a teacher at the school when she was allegedly molested by Leifer.
The sister “did not know about sex and didn’t know that people touched each other. She was confused,” Lewis said.
“She felt too scared to move and scared of what the consequences would be if she told the accused to stop, especially because of the high esteem in which the accused was held within the school,” Lewis added.
Leifer left the school in March 2008. The sisters reported the abuse allegations to social worker Chana Rabinowitz, psychiatrist Lorraine Dennerstein and psychologist Vicki Gordon between 2008 and 2014, Lewis said.
Defense lawyer Ian Hill told the jury that one of the sisters had told Gordon “she believed she had lost her virginity” to a man while in high school. A former husband of another sister would testify that he had overheard his wife say that Rabinowitz “made a big deal” about her relationship with Leifer and was “taking it out of all proportion,” Hill said.
That was around the time in 2008 that Rabinowitz raised the allegations against Leifer with authorities.
Hill said that one of the sisters gave an account to psychiatrist Natalie Krapivensky that contradicts some of the allegations on trial.
The three sisters had an "exceptionally difficult home life” because their mother was “physically, verbally and emotionally abusive to each of them in unimaginable and sadistic ways,” Hill said.
“There will be other evidence about the positive, glowing, appropriate relationship between the three sisters and Mrs. Leifer,” Hill said. “An issue will become as to whether, in fact, they took on Mrs. Leifer, in effect, as a substitute parent in view of what was happening at home.”
Leifer denies that any sexual activity took place. But Hill noted that the sisters were old enough to legally consent to the sexual acts alleged in 21 of the 29 charges.
The sisters are expected to begin testifying when the trial resumes on Thursday. Media are not allowed to report the testimonies of alleged victims of sexual assault in Victoria.
Judge Mark Gamble has imposed a gag order that restricts media reporting on certain aspects of the case. Details of those restrictions cannot be reported.
The trial is scheduled to take six weeks.