Alleged victims shocked by release of Malka Leifer

Australian Broadcasting Corporation
March 6, 2016

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Alleged victims of former Melbourne school principal Malka Leifer have been devastated by news she will not face extradition from Israel to Australia. Overnight a Jerusalem judge ruled Leifer was not mentally fit to face extradition.

Transcript:

MATT WORDSWORTH, PRESENTER: People are still absorbing the shock today, following news that an Australian woman wanted for multiple sex offences may walk free in Israel.

News overnight from Jerusalem, that extradition proceedings against accused Melbourne paedophile Malka Leifer have stalled, has rocked the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. The former principal of the elite Adass Jewish School is wanted in Melbourne on 74 child sex charges, but can stay in Israel after a judge ruled she was not mentally fit to face extradition to Australia.

The decision, which prosecutors have 72 hours to appeal, has left alleged victims devastated and the insular sect questioning their decision to allow Ms Leifer to flee Australia for Israel in the first place.

Louise Milligan reports.

LOUISE MILLIGAN, REPORTER: Melbourne's Adass Israel community is tiny. About 200 families make up this group, considered strictly observant even by other orthodox Jews.

ZEDDY LAWRENCE, EDITOR, AUSTRALIAN JEWISH NEWS: They are a pretty small community: around 2,000 of them here in Australia, mainly focused here in Melbourne - and the specific area of Melbourne around Rippon Lea. They dress in a way that modern people wouldn't dress: in this kind of 19th century Polish fashion. And they have their own school. They have their own synagogue.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: Eight years ago, that community was shocked to learn a student at its all-girls school had confided to a counsellor that her principal had sexually abused her.

ZEDDY LAWRENCE: It was cataclysmic for the community. Never had so much dirty laundry been washed in public.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: But instead of reporting these claims about Malka Leifer to the police, the school made a drastically different decision.

SHLOMO ABELESZ, ADASS ISRAEL COMMUNITY LEADER: They called an urgent meeting. And they called in Mrs Leifer, who denied everything. But they decided that there's too much - you know, the suspicion of guilt is pretty high and they said: "Out of here." And they got rid of her.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: The Adass community got rid of Malka Leifer immediately. She flew out of Melbourne at midnight, taking her family to Israel.

'Rebecca' was one of her alleged victims.

'REBECCA', FMR ADASS ISRAEL STUDENT (Lateline, 7 Apr.): I'm never forget that day. The whole community was in upheaval. And that's when it properly hit me that the lady who had controlled my life for the past three years had just fled the country. And she had just... just gone.

And it was the shock, the anger, the pain.

ZEDDY LAWRENCE: They didn't want the shame and the scandal and they took actions to try and hush it up at the time.

So I mean, I think people are shocked outside the Adass Israel community that that happened. They are very disappointed that it happened: that she was spirited away. And I think a lot of people will feel that those who are responsible should be hanging their heads in shame today.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: The news came from Israel overnight that Malka Leifer will probably not have to face justice. A Jerusalem District Court judge has ruled that the former principal is not mentally fit to be extradited to Melbourne, to face claims that she sexually abused what's now claimed to be as many as 20 of her former students.

MANNY WAKS, VICTIM ADVOCATE: The fact that the judge even highlighted that in his remarks seems to indicate that he also understood it; and therefore makes this outcome even more astounding as to why he's decided to let her off the hook in this way.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: Manny Waks, who was a victim at Melbourne's Orthodox Yeshiva School and went to the Royal Commission, has followed the case in Israel and is in contact with some of the alleged victims.

He spoke to 7.30 via Skype.

MANNY WAKS: They feel absolutely devastated. They are outraged at the decision. And what they also highlighted is the fact that they have lost faith in the Israeli judicial system.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: 'Rebecca' spoke to the ABC in April.

'REBECCA' (Lateline, 7 Apr.): The far-reaching effects of the physical and emotional abuse is still... it's still having a large impact on myself and other victims today.

DAVID SEEMAN, BARRISTER: The abuse occurred, I believe, over a period of about three years. It was conducted at the school; it occurred at Malka Leifer's home; and occurred on camps. It was made up of what you might regard as abuse low on the scale of severity and ranged all the way up to what you might regard as the most serious and horrific abuse.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: Shlomo Abelesz is a leader in Melbourne's Adass community. He did not make the decision to send Malka Leifer away, but he says they were in a bind when the psychologist reported the abuse, because they didn't at the time know who the victim was.

SHLOMO ABELESZ: Had we gone to the police, the police couldn't have arrested her because there was no-one charging her, no-one...

So they wanted to get rid of Mrs Leifer because they didn't want her anywhere near the children. She was quite powerful here.

ZEDDY LAWRENCE: What about the kids in Israel? She's been there for the last six years now. She's been exposed to other children - or rather, other children have been exposed to her. Who knows what may have happened in the meantime over there?

LOUISE MILLIGAN: Mr Abelesz believes that, if they had their time again, the Adass people would have done things differently.

SHLOMO ABELESZ: Probably there's regret because I think most of the community would like her to face justice and, if guilty - if found guilty - to have prison time.

LOUISE MILLIGAN: After the child abuse Royal Commission turned the spotlight on Melbourne's Chabad community - and, it now seems, the claims against Malka Leifer will go unanswered - the Orthodox community that lives here has had a difficult couple of years: coming to terms with the fact that some of their own could have committed these crimes against children.

The editor of the Australian Jewish News, which has at times raised the ire of some of the Orthodox community for covering these cases, says his community should not have double standards when it comes to extradition.

ZEDDY LAWRENCE: We still campaign to get Nazi war criminals brought to justice. And there are often cases, where somebody is accused of committing war crimes, where people will say: "They're too old. They're too frail. They're too ill. What's the point after all this time?"

And it would be shocking to think that the same standard was being brought to bear here, where people are saying, "Oh, Malka Leifer is too ill to face justice." She has to stand trial for the crimes she is accused of committing.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Louise Milligan reporting.