Cover-up of sex abuse by girls' school principal dishonours Adass

By Cameron Stewart (The Australian)
September 19, 2015

Adass Israel School head Professor Israel Herszberg says the decision to pay for Malka Leifer's airfares back to Israel was 'a legal obligation' the school owed her.

It was a meeting that would come to shame a Jewish school and the leaders of an ultra-Orthodox community. On an autumn night in Melbourne, a teacher and two board members from the Adass Israel School, along with a barrister and a psychologist, gathered at the home of the late businessman Izzy Herzog to discuss disturbing news.

They had become aware of eight separate allegations that the principal of the girls' school, Malka Leifer, had sexually abused her students. For Melbourne's reclusive Adass Jewish community of about 2000 people, the news could not have been worse. Leifer was a towering figure among the Adass, with community representatives having headhunted her from Israel eight years earlier.

Many were in awe of her, and the notion that she would betray her community was unthinkable.

Those gathered at the meeting called Leifer on a speakerphone and put the allegations to her. She angrily denied them: "You have destroyed my reputation, I'm not going to stand for this."

The group then told Leifer, a mother of eight in her late 40s, that she would be stood down as principal of the Adass school, in the southern eastern suburb of Elsternwick.

What happened next was described this week by Victorian Supreme Court judge Jack Rush as "disgraceful" and "deplorable".

Rather than contact the police, the school tried to hide its embarrassment by exporting its problem. Only hours after that meeting on March 5, 2008, Dassi Ernst, the wife of school board member Meir Ernst, asked a local travel agent to book the next flight to Israel, saying someone needed to travel there "urgently".

The agent opened the travel agency about 10pm and booked tickets for Leifer, who flew to Israel with four of her children several hours later, at 1.20am. Seven years on, Leifer is still in Israel, despite extradition proceedings to have her return to Australia to face trial.

This week, in a withering judgment, Justice Rush said the school's conduct in paying for Leifer's urgent departure from Australia "amounts to disgraceful and contumelious behaviour demonstrating a complete disregard for Leifer's victims".

"The conduct demonstrates a disdain for due process for criminal investigation in this state."

Justice Rush ordered the school pay $1,024,428 in damages to a former student, now 28, who was abused by Leifer from the age of 15 to 18. It is one of Australia's largest payouts for child sex abuse and has raised speculation it will set a precedent for schools involved in abuse scandals.

It is the second major sex abuse scandal involving Australia's Orthodox Jewish community where the rights of child sex victims have been trumped by concerns about reputation and religion. The current royal commission into sexual abuse recently heard how Orthodox Yeshivah leaders in Sydney and Melbourne chose to preserve the prestige of their faith over the safety of children when failing to adequately deal with sexual abuse in their schools in the 1980s and 90s.

Justice Rush said in his judgment: "In accordance with the religious beliefs and practices of the Adass community, the plaintiff and her siblings were bought up in a home with no access to television, radio, internet, magazines or newspapers; not even a sales catalogue entered the home.

"Children were raised not having knowledge of world events and were completely isolated from anything beyond the community they were within."

The victim told the court: "We weren't to know that a relationship could exist between a female and a male."

The Adass school, which had about 500 children enrolled in the separate boys and girls campuses, was a religious school above all else. At the time of the abuse, the girls' school did not offer Year 12 because they were expected to be housewives rather than go to university.

The woman told the court she was 15 when Leifer started to molest her. At first this would be in her office, then at Leifer's home and on school camp. She described how the abuse escalated from touching her over her school uniform to eventually sucking her breasts and penetrating her with her fingers, sometimes several times a week.

"(She) offered to give me lessons on Sunday, lessons about Jewish values and Jewish morals, and I met with her in the school and in her home," she said. "I felt very special, I felt privileged, I felt worthy.

"Because the community is the school and the school is the community … the whole community looked up to her and basically idolised her, she was seen as someone who was holier than holy."

In Year 12, when an arranged marriage for the girl was pending, the sexual abuse took on the guise of Leifer teaching the plaintiff about marriage. "She kissed me on the mouth, which I didn't know was something that could be done," the woman said.

Justice Rush said: "I accept that because of her extremely sheltered background, she did not understand what was happening to her, particularly as to whether it was right or wrong."

Even if she did, there was no mechanism at the school to make such a complaint and it was unlikely given Leifer's status within the Adass community that the victim would be believed.

"She was in charge of everything," the woman recalled. "There was nothing that happened in the school that didn't have her approval … (she) ruled the school with an iron rod … people were in awe of her."

"The plaintiff was extremely vulnerable," said Justice Rush. "That the sexual abuse occurred under the guise of Jewish education by the headmistress of the school makes the breach of trust associated with the abuse monstrous. The evidence discloses the sole motivation of Leifer in her dealings with the plaintiff was her own sexual gratification."

The victim would later find out that Leifer had also abused her two sisters who attended the school. One has since settled with the school while another is considering her legal options.

In late 2006, the victim left for Israel with her husband but about a year later she sought help after she began to have recurring nightmares, anxiety and flashbacks. Then in late February 2008, about 11 days before Leifer fled the country, a friend told a teacher at the Adass school, Sharon Bromberg, that a former student now in Israel was saying "inappropriate conduct" had taken place involving Leifer.

Bromberg knew the victim so she called her and quickly became convinced she was telling the truth. Bromberg phoned Leifer and picked her up in her car to discuss it but Leifer deflected the conversation and claimed there was no problem.

Bromberg did not believe her. She feared the principal may have "groomed" the Adass community into believing anything she said. On Friday, February 29, just under four days before Leifer left Australia, Bromberg told two senior rabbis about the allegation.

On the following Tuesday, Bromberg met several other rabbis, as well as barrister Normal Rosen-baum and psychologist Vicki Gordon, and told them of the allegations. By now, she was aware of two former students who were alleging abuse by Leifer.

Bromberg was then asked to attend the meeting the following night at Herzog's house with school board president Yitzhok Benedikt, fellow board member Ernst, Rosenbaum and Gordon.

When giving evidence in court, Rosenbaum tried to play down the group's knowledge of the sexual allegations against the principal, saying: "We didn't know who the people were, the victims."

Justice Rush's conclusion was damning. "At the time of her (Leifer's) departure, the president of the board, Mr Benedikt, was aware of at least eight separate allegations of sexual misconduct involving Leifer and the girls at the school, in addition to the initial complaints. The allegations amounted to Leifer being a serial sexual abuser."

The school's current principal, professor Israel Herszberg, said the decision to pay for Leifer's airfares back to Israel was "a legal obligation" the school owed her.

Justice Rush rejected there was any legal obligation to pay for Leifer to leave Australia and said even if there were, it would "not defeat an obligation to ensure allegations of serious criminal offences are properly investigated''.

"Further, in such circumstances, the alleged perpetrator should not be assisted to urgently flee the jurisdiction. The failure of the board to report the allegations to police prior to arranging Leifer's urgent departure is deplorable," he said. "I have no doubt the conduct was deliberate."

Justice Rush said he believed it was motivated by a desire to protect the reputation of the Adass community. "The conduct of Messrs Benedikt and Ernst on behalf of the board in facilitating the urgent departure of Leifer was likely motivated by a desire to conceal her wrongdoing and isolate the conduct and its consequences to within the Adass community."

Leifer's departure did little to ease the suffering of the victim, who became pregnant in 2009 but deliberately hurt herself and began to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

By 2011, her life had spiralled out of control. Her marriage ended, she had suicidal thoughts and incidents of self-harm. She was admitted to a clinic three times between 2011 and 2012.

The victim, now 28, still struggles with her illness. She lives in Melbourne and juggles a part-time job with her role as a mother but no longer follows the religious lifestyle of the Adass.

During the court case, lawyers for the school argued it was the Adass congregation rather than the school that employed Leifer and so the school was not liable. Justice Rush said there was ample evidence Leifer was the principal of the school and that the school was liable for her behaviour.

He described her breach of trust as "evil" and ordered that she personally pay $150,000 to her former student. That may not be easy to enforce. Leifer was arrested in Israel last September on dozens of child sex abuse charges from her time at the Adass Israel school but remains there under house arrest in the ultra-orthodox area of Bnei Brak outside Tel Aviv.

The former principal, who wears an electronic tag, has repeatedly delayed extradition hearings, on the ground of alleged ill-health.

"There can be no more serious charge levelled against the headmistress of a girls' school than that such headmistress has abused the trust reposed in her by sexually abusing those in her charge," said Justice Rush.