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A 12-year struggle for justice ends as Leifer found guilty

Michael Visontay
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leifer sisters

Published: 4 April 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The verdicts, the timelines and the implications of the trial of former Adass Israel principal Malka Leifer, one of the most notorious cases of abuse in the history of Australia's Jewish community.

Yesterday’s verdict by a Melbourne jury, which found Malka Leifer guilty of multiple counts of sexual abuse, is a belated vindication of Dassi Erlich’s 12-year campaign for justice.

The verdict is a testament to Erlich’s unwavering courage and tenacity, initially waging an individual campaign, in which she was later joined by her two sisters, Elly Sapper and Nicole Meyer, after they also told police that Leifer had abused them too.

But there are mixed feelings for the three sisters after the jury found their former school principal guilty of 18 offences against Erlich and Sapper during 2003-07 but acquitted her on the five charges that related to Meyer.

For Erlich and Sapper, there is relief and vindication, tinged with disappointment and compassion after the jury acquitted Leifer of the charges against their sister. For Meyer, the verdict will be a bitter pill, after the joint harrowing experience the three had endured in recent years as they tried every avenue to have Leifer extradited from Israel to face our judicial system.

This case is disturbing evidence that there are strong elements in the Haredi community who consider themselves beyond secular law - and a powerful reminder that they are not.

"Yes, it's bittersweet, but she is guilty," Meyer said outside court, holding hands with her sisters. "I believe in myself. My sisters believe in me."

All three sisters were in court for the verdicts. "It was frightening but at the same time we were able to stand strong and look at each other and look at her, and say 'She abused us'," Sapper said.

The case reached into the upper echelons of the Australian and Israeli governments, involving the prime ministers of both countries, sparking international headlines and gaining a sustained prominence in a way few abuse cases have done in Australia, save for that involving the late Cardinal George Pell.

It exposed systemic failures in the ultra-Orthodox community, to which Leifer belongs, and the Israeli government and judicial systems.

Leifer is due back in court on April 26 but will face a pre-sentence hearing at a later date. She has already been in jail for two years on remand while awaiting this trial, and there may be several more years to come.

The decision sends many important signals, on personal, judicial and political levels. It provides hope to all those who have been the victims of historical sexual abuse or faced injustice, and demonstrates there is hope for them to have their day in court – though the level of determination shown by Erlich and her sisters could not be expected of everyone.

The case also showed the faith Australians can have in their judicial system, which demonstrated an efficiency and transparency that it is too easy to take for granted.

By contrast, one of the most disturbing elements of the case was the corruption it revealed in Israel. In 2019 then Israeli Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, intervened in the psychiatric assessments of Leifer’s mental fitness to be tried, in an attempt to stop Leifer from being extradited to Australia.

Yet Litzman’s reprehensible actions ended with a slap on the wrist by the Israeli government: in a plea deal he admitted to a breach of trust, avoided jail, was sentenced to probation and fined $A940.

Litzman was not the only member of the ultra-Orthodox community who was implicated in the extensive effort to protect Leifer and the closed Haredi world from the reach of secular justice.

Israel Prize-winning Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman came to court to speak on Leifer's behalf and offered to watch over her in his home, even though he had never met her.

“It would be a humiliation for Ms. Leifer to remain in custody,” he said. The court agreed with the rabbi, ordering Leifer to be released to his home in Migdal Ha'emek, a decision that was overturned a week later by the Supreme Court.

The leadership of three young women prepared to face their abuser has ended the myth that abuse "doesn't happen in our community".

Adass Israel School principal and chief executive Aaron Strasser yesterday finally apologised to the sisters on behalf of the school. Sapper and Meyer have each received confidential settlements from the school, while Erlich was awarded $1.1 million in damages by the Victorian Supreme Court in a civil suit in 2015, one of the largest payouts ever made in a sexual abuse case.

"We are sorry for the distress they have suffered and the impact of the abuse on their lives and families," he said. "We commend the survivors' bravery in coming forward."

That saga exposed the inherent dangers of Israel’s political currents that have seen ultra-Orthodox Jews handed positions of political power – a danger that has been given added intensity by the agenda of Israel’s new far-Right government, whose plans to hobble the independence of the judiciary sparked mass protests.

This case is disturbing evidence that there are strong elements in the Haredi community who consider themselves beyond secular law - and a powerful reminder that they are not.

The leadership of three young women prepared to face their abuser also had dividends in raising awareness of the sexual abuse within the Jewish community and ending the myth that abuse "doesn't happen in our community".

As Daniel Aghion KC, President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, said in welcoming the verdict, This case has exposed gravely dangerous and damaging behaviour. It is a wake-up call to every community organisation that works with children to do better." 

The verdict is a vindication but we must also remember that the crime of abusing children destroys lives. While Dassi Erlich and her sisters can take a measure of satisfaction at the outcome of their perseverance, they will always have to live with the scars of the abuse perpetrated against them by their former principal.


Timeline: how the Malka Leifer case unfolded (The Jewish Independent)

Malka Leifer found guilty of rape and indecent assault (The Jewish Independent)

Additional reporting: AAP

Photo: Sisters Elly Sapper, left, Nicole Meyer and Dassi Erlich leave the County Court of Victoria after yesterday's verdict (AAP Image/Joel Carrett) 

About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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