A former principal of an Australian Jewish school sentenced to 15 years for child sex abuse

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A former principal of an Australian Jewish school was sentenced on Thursday to 15 years in prison after she was convicted of sexually abusing two students.

Malka Leifer, 56, must serve at least 11 years and six months of the sentence before she can be considered for early release. As soon as she is released from a Victoria state prison, she will likely be deported to her native Israel.

Leifer was principal of Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School when she abused sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper between 2004 and 2007. Erlich was 16 and Sapper 17 when the abuse began.

The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters have chosen to identify themselves in the media.

The siblings, who along with their older sister Nicole Meyer became the public face of a campaign to bring Leifer to justice, attended court and welcomed the sentence.

Erlich said the sentence demonstrated that “voices of survivors will not and cannot be silenced, no matter the obstacles.”

“This has been one of the most traumatizing, destabilizing and awful, painful, paths to justice,” Erlich told reporters.

“But today really marks the end of this chapter of our lives and opens the chapter to us healing,” she added.

A Victoria County Court jury in April convicted her of 18 of 27 charges of sex abuse that she was tried on. The most serious convictions were on six counts of rape, each carrying a potential maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. Leifer was found not guilty of five charges relating to Meyer's allegations.

In sentencing, Judge Mark Gamble described Liefer’s offending against vulnerable victims as predatory and persistent.

The sisters had endured a “cruel and frightening upbringing at the hands of a very abusive mother,” received no sex education and did not recognize sexualized conduct, Gamble said.

“This case is striking for just how vulnerable each of the two victims was and for the calculating way in which the offender, Mrs. Leifer, took callous advantage of those vulnerabilities in order to sexually abuse them for her own sexual gratification,” he said.

“This is a serious aggravating feature in respect of all of the offences,” he added.

The Tel Aviv-born mother of eight maintains her innocence and Gamble said she had shown no remorse.

Leifer chose to watch her three-hour sentencing hearing by a video link from a high-security Melbourne women's prison rather than attend court in person and appeared teary-eyed at times.

She began teaching at the school in 2001 and returned to Israel in 2008 the morning after she was stood down from her principal role because Erlich’s allegations had come to light.

The school's current principal and chief executive Aaron Strasser on Thursday apologized to Leifer's victims for the distress they had suffered and for the impact of the abuse on their lives and families.

“Her offending was a gross and complete breach of trust and it is our hope that today’s sentencing provides a sense of justice for the survivors and helps them to heal,” Strasser said in a statement.

"The safety and wellbeing of students remain our highest priorities and we have zero tolerance for abuse of any kind,” Strasser added.

Victorian police filed criminal charges in 2012 and the battle to extradite her from Israel began in 2014, with her lawyers arguing that she was not mentally fit to stand trial.

Gamble gave her 2,069 days off her sentence for time already served in custody in Australia since she returned in January 2021 and for time spent in Israel in custody and under home arrest.

He found Leifer had exaggerated and intensified her mental health conditions to frustrate extradition proceedings in Israel.


This version has corrected the spelling of Erlich's name.