Judge found the abuse left the victims filled with shame, unable to trust others and subject to triggering attacks that required hospital treatment.
Malka Leifer’s behaviour towards Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper was “predatory, undertaken for no better reason than her sexual gratification and has had a devastating impact on each victim”, a judge said in Melbourne yesterday.
In the Victorian County Court, Judge Mark Gamble sentenced the former school principal to 15 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 11 years and 6 months.
But Leifer, 56, is likely to spend a little over five years and six months in prison before being eligible for parole because she has already served 2069 days, just under six years, in detention in house arrest in Israel and in remand in Australia
In July, Leifer was convicted of 18 charges of rape and other sexual assaults against the sisters, conducted over four years in the early 2000s. She was acquitted of a series of other charges in relation to a third sister, Nicole Meyer.
Leifer was not in court for the sentencing but watched proceedings via a video link from prison.
Yesterday’s sentencing is the culmination of a case that stretches back to 2004, when Leifer started her sexual abuse of the sisters at the Adass School, an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne. The case became international after Leifer fled to Israel to avoid prosecution. Police this year reopened an investigation into Adass Israel board suspected of helping her escape.
It reached the highest echelons of government in both countries when an Israeli minister interfered in the case, and Australian politicians on both sides of politics lobbied the Israeli government to have Leifer expedited to face justice in Australia.
In a summing up that lasted three hours and 20 minutes, Judge Gamble said that the sisters’ insulated and sheltered upbringing, within the strict ultra-Orthodox environment of the Adass community, meant they received no education about sexuality.
“Leifer was aware that each complainant was ignorant in sexual matters, and therefore incapable of giving informed consent to any sexual act.”Judge Mark Gamble
Erlich gave evidence that she did not even know people kissed each other on the lips. The judge said that even when Leifer was touching them on private parts of their bodies and telling them that she loved them like a mother, the sisters did not understand that her actions were of a sexual nature.
The judge said the evidence demonstrated that “Mrs Leifer was aware that each complainant was ignorant in sexual matters, and therefore incapable of giving informed consent to any sexual act”.
Leifer exploited the sisters’ confidences about their miserable home life, in which they were subjected to persistent physical and emotional abuse from their mother, to make them stay silent. She threatened that if they told anyone about what she did to them, she would share their shame about their family with the community.
Judge Gamble described in graphic detail each of the crimes and incidents on which Leifer was convicted, and spoke of the crushing and ongoing impact that Leifer’s behaviour had on the sisters.
“Today really marks the end of this chapter of our lives and opens the chapter to us healing.”Dassi Erlich
“In her victim impact statement, Hadassah (Dassi) Erlich describes the significant and enduring impact that Leifer’s offending has had on her,” he said. “She believes that Leifer’s exploitation of her need for love and security has forever fractured her ability to trust people. Every gesture is analysed for any sign of danger, even though Miss Erlich doubts her ability to accurately detect deceit or truth in others.
“She is regularly reminded of the abuse through triggering events, flashbacks and nightmares. She feels a sense of shame for having allowed the abuse to occur and for not being able to erase the pain that it continues to cause her despite having undergone the burden of years of therapy. She feels stressed and remains hyper-vigilant. She fears that she may never feel safe.
“One of the most significant aspects of the harm caused … is the effect it has had upon her role as a mother. She was unable to continue breastfeeding her daughter and feels an overpowering need to shield her from harm. The taxing nature of maintaining such vigilance sometimes takes moments of joy and connection and whether because of absence through periods of hospitalisation or otherwise, Miss Erlich believes that she’s not always fully present with her daughter.”
Judge Gamble said Elly Sapper’s impact statement was just as powerful. “She has experienced immense pain which feels all-encompassing and leaves her little respite. Leifer’s betrayal of her expressed love towards her has left Miss Sapper feeling utterly broken. She continues to experience vivid flashbacks and nightmares.
“On occasion she has required hospitalisation. Her ability to trust people has been tarnished. At times she is unable to let others touch her, including her own husband, because of what she sees as a fraudulent way in which Mrs Leifer touched her.”
“[Miss Sapper] is afraid that she may not be able to protect the people that she loves, especially her young daughter. Her concerns about a similar thing happening to her daughter can at times destroy her ability to be in the present and to trust people, and she is afraid of not being able to heal, as triggering events which cause panic attacks and depression, continue to occur without warning.”
Sapper’s husband’s impact statement was also mentioned. “The difficulty she experiences trusting people sometimes include him and there are times when she pushes him away as if to sabotage the relationship. It took a long time for her to realise that he was not going to abandon her as Leifer did.
“There are times when their ability to do the things that are necessary for a balanced relationship is limited. On occasion, Sapper’s distrust of people in authority makes it difficult to leave their daughter in childcare and to plan for their daughter’s future schooling,” the judge said.
In his summing up, Judge Gamble also revealed little-known details of Leifer’s personal background.
Leifer is the youngest of four children in her family; all of her siblings work in the teaching profession. Her father was a teacher and died in 2015; her mother is 94, lives in Israel and is in frail health.
At the age of 20, Leifer married a Canadian rabbi. They are still married, and he works in a synagogue in the Emmanuel community in Israel. They have eight children – six sons and two daughters, now aged from 17 to 34. All live in Israel except for two sons – one of whom is in New York, the other in London. She has 17 grandchildren, the youngest of whom is only a few months old.
Leifer has received only two personal visits from her family while she has been in custody – from her sons. Her husband has not visited due to his family commitments in Israel.
All three sisters were in court for the sentencing. Speaking outside, Nicole Meyer said, “This is a momentous day to be standing outside court. We feel overwhelmed and grateful that the legal system has recognised and validated the extreme impact of abuse by female perpetrators …We are so relieved that Malka Leifer is now in prison for 15 years and cannot prey on anyone else.”
Dassi Erlich said, “We are here today because we did not give up and while we know that the onus of fighting for justice should not be up to survivors, this fight was never just for us. We are showing that the voices of survivors will not and cannot be silenced.
“Today really marks the end of this chapter of our lives and opens the chapter to us healing.”
Daniel Aghion KC, President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, expressed the community’s relief at the end of the process. “Every person in the Victorian Jewish community has a responsibility to do our utmost to protect children from harm. We stand with Dassi, Nicole and Elly, whose courage and tenacity is an example to us all. Today’s proceedings bring to mind the famous quote by American-Jewish Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis that sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Timeline: How the Malka Leifer case unfolded (Plus61J Media)
Illustration: Malka Leifer in court during her trial (Anita Lester)