A former head teacher has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two sisters at an ultraorthodox Jewish school in Australia, 15 years after she fled to Israel to escape arrest. Malka Leifer was found guilty on 18 charges, including raping a student during a sleepover and sexually assaulting a pupil during a school camp. The jury at a Melbourne court cleared her of a further nine charges. Leifer, who has maintained her innocence throughout, sat with her hands folded and stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read. Sentencing will come at a later date.
Leifer was the principal of the Adass Israel School in Melbourne when she was first accused of sexual assault in 2008. A dual Israeli-Australian citizen, Leifer fled to Israel before she could be arrested, sparking a drawn-out court battle spanning more than 70 extradition hearings. Prosecutors alleged during the trial that Leifer sexually assaulted three sisters who were studying at the Adass Israel School, which is part of a reclusive Jewish sect on the city’s outskirts. After a seven-week trial and seven days of deliberations, the jury convicted Leifer of sexually assaulting two of the sisters.
“She abused the three of us for so many years; and while today’s verdict may not properly reflect that, today Malka Leifer was finally held accountable,” one of the sisters, Elly Sapper, said outside the court. “She is guilty and she will be held accountable. Justice was served today.”
Leifer fled Australia after one of the students confided in her therapist about the sexual assaults. She eventually settled in the ultraorthodox Emmanuel illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. Australian police filed charges against Leifer in 2012 and requested her extradition from Israel two years later, leading to 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 not afflicted by the mental illnesses she had claimed. She was eventually extradited to Melbourne on a flight in 2021.
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”. “We deny that they are telling the truth,” he said.
The case has been closely watched in Australia and Israel, with critics accusing Israel of dragging out the extradition process to protect one of its own citizens. The case has also highlighted the issue of sexual abuse within ultraorthodox Jewish communities, which have been accused of covering up abuse and protecting abusers.
In a statement, the Adass Israel School said it was “deeply sorry” for the harm caused to the victims and their families. “We acknowledge that we failed to protect our students from harm and for this we are truly sorry,” the statement said. “We have implemented significant changes to our policies and procedures to ensure that our school is a safe and supportive environment for all students.”
The case has also prompted calls for changes to Australia’s extradition laws, which have been criticised for being too slow and cumbersome. In a statement, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the government was committed to reforming the extradition system. “We recognise that there are issues with the current system and we are working to address them,” she said. “We want to ensure that those who commit crimes in Australia are held accountable, no matter where they flee.”