Malka Leifer trial resumes in open session
The former Adass Israel principal sat in court this week, following the case intently and taking notes.
Clad in a black turban and black dress, Malka Leifer sat in the County Court of Victoria on Thursday attentively following her criminal trial, as video evidence from a counsellor in Israel was played to the jury.
Leifer, 56, an Israeli mother of eight, faces 29 charges related to sexual abuse, including rape, indecent assault and sexual penetration of a child aged 16 or 17 under her care or supervision. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges relating to the three complainants, sisters Elly Sapper, Nicole Meyer and Dassi Erlich.
Questioned by Crown prosecutor Justin Lewis, Israeli social worker Chana Rabinowitz, who had earlier worked in Melbourne and consulted at the Adass school, said she professionally saw Hadassah Sapper (aka Dassi Erlich) in Israel for around six months.
Rabinowitz said she began counselling Erlich around September-October 2007, but rejected a description by Leifer’s barrister Ian Hill, that Erlich had “internet addiction”.
The counselling was mainly about how frequently Erlich, who had previously had virtually no exposure to the internet, had been going online, and some of the sites she was visiting, including ones with “sexual” content. Rabinowitz also counselled her on issues arising from “adjusting to marriage”, she said.
Hill asked Rabinowitz if she had first raised the issue of sex abuse with her client or whether Erlich had raised it first.
Rabinowitz said she recollected asking Erlich if she had been “hurt” by somebody, as that was becoming apparent to her, and Erlich had told her it was Leifer.
She said that in a “particularly emotional” session in February 2008, ”she finally had a deeper sense of what was going on” and that Leifer had acted “in an abusive manner” towards Erlich.
Erlich was “very distraught” and had told Rabinowitz that in Melbourne when she had visited Leifer’s home, the principal had “taken her to a bedroom, undressed her, told her what to do and she [Leifer] would do things” to Erlich.
Rabinowitz said Leifer had digitally penetrated Erlich and touched her on various parts of her body.
The principal had told Erlich it would help her in a future marriage, Rabinowitz said.
Asked by Lewis, Rabinowitz said her notes, which she had kept on a computer without backups, were destroyed when the computer stopped working.
Hill put to Rabinowitz that she had refused to be interviewed by Victorian police in 2011 and was not interviewed by them until 2021. He suggested to her that in 2011, her memory of events in 2008 “must have been fresher than in 2021 or 2023”. He said, “It’s impossible for you to recollect accurately or precisely what [Erlich] said to you.”
Rabinowitz said she had legal advice in 2011 not to consent to an interview with Victorian police.
Earlier in the week, Erlich’s ex-husband Joshua Erlich agreed he overheard his wife and Meyer laughing and “working out ways to harass Mrs Leifer”. Asked by Hill, “She was speaking about it like it was a fun and exciting thing to do?”, Joshua Erlich replied, “Yes.”
Psychologist Dr Vicki Gordon testifying that Elly Sapper was unable to verbally describe Leifer’s alleged abuse of her. Recounting a 2008 counselling session, Gordon said Sapper “would SMS me from inside the room … she couldn’t mouth the words.”
Sapper had texted her about Leifer “touching me in places all over my body. Never liked it. She could see this but would continue … She would say to me I’d never be able to give a man pleasure. She told me I needed it because I never had warmth and affection at home. She said it was for me but I didn’t want it.”
Another counsellor, Professor Lorraine Dennerstein, said Nicole Meyer had claimed to her she was abused at the school. Meyer characterised her home life as “shit”, and Leifer made her feel “like someone cared”.
Cleaner Mario Toledo, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, said in 2006 he saw Leifer at the Adass school on most Sundays, when she was usually in the company of a number of female students, including Meyer and sometimes Sapper.
Toledo said he needed access to a room “B5” to clean it on Sundays. “There was one occasion when I opened the door but she [Leifer] pushed the door shut and told me not to come in,” he said.
Hill described the allegations against his client as “erroneous, imagined and/or fabricated”… Mrs Leifer denies all of the criminal conduct alleged by each of the complainants.”
Lewis said the sisters were sheltered from the world and had no knowledge of sexual relations as they grew up.
Esther Spiegelman, a former departmental manager at the school, said she was at a 2008 board meeting at which Leifer was stood down and the principal had tearfully claimed she had done nothing wrong.
The trial was held in open session from Monday this week after two weeks in which Sapper, Meyer and Erlich gave evidence in closed court.
Proceedings before Judge Mark Gamble and a jury are continuing.