Sisters hope to put trauma behind them as abuser jailed

Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS

If once-celebrated ultra-Orthodox Jewish principal Malka Leifer hadn't fled to Israel within hours of sexual abuse allegations being made against her, she might be nearing the end of a prison sentence.

But 15 years after accusations were first made, Leifer has been ordered to spend 15 years behind bars for the insidious, callous and calculated sexual abuse of two former students at the Adass Israel School in Melbourne's inner east.

The sentence is a final chapter in a years long legal fight for justice by Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper, and leaves them feeling they can finally start to heal.

A jury convicted Leifer of 18 charges including the rape and indecent assault of the sisters between 2004 and 2007 when they were students at the Adass Israel School and in their first year as student teachers.

She was acquitted of nine other charges, including all five relating to the siblings' older sister Nicole Meyer, who was beside them in the Victorian County Court for Leifer's sentencing on Thursday.

The sisters hope they can now put this trauma behind them.

"I definitely in that courtroom today felt the pain of my younger self that went through that abuse, I could feel those emotions coming up as the judge was speaking," Ms Erlich said outside court.

"Knowing that's not where we are anymore, we're not powerless anymore, that was a very felt sense today."

Leifer watched the hearing by video-link from maximum security women's prison, the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, taking up her usual stoic position with a hand positioned across her mouth.

She began shaking and tears rolled down her cheeks at one point during Judge Gamble's remarks, but she did not react when the sentence was read.

Leifer will be eligible for parole after serving 11-and-a-half years but it's expected she could serve the full amount of the sentence before she is taken into immigration detention and deported to Israel.

She has already served more than five-and-a-half years of the sentence, with the judge taking into account time in custody in Australia and Israel.

In a three-hour sentencing hearing, Judge Gamble detailed the grooming and abuse Leifer inflicted upon the sisters, already struggling with a difficult home life.

Leifer arrived as menaheles - or principal - of the Adass Israel School in 2001.

She knew about their home life and took advantage of their vulnerabilities to abuse them for her own gratification, the judge said, adding that her important role at the school gave her the ability to foster a close relationship and make them believe she loved and cared for them.

He said the level of intimacy and duration of her crimes was disturbing and callous, and that her actions were predatory in nature and involved the exploitation and manipulation of two very vulnerable victims.

Ms Erlich's statement in court about the impact of Leifer's abuse was a powerful illustration of the legacy the insidious abuse left her with.

Ms Sapper described dealing guilt, shame and fear, and continues to blame herself for allowing Leifer to love her.

But Judge Gamble said the sisters were commendably resilient and surprisingly optimistic.

"They were completely innocent victims of the predatory behaviour of Mrs Leifer, and it is she and she alone who should feel guilty," the judge said.

He said Leifer continued to strenuously maintain her innocence and had showed no insight or remorse for her actions.

"I am not convinced Mrs Leifer has in any way reformed," he said.

He considered that she was unlikely to reoffend, because she would never again be in a position to exploit vulnerable children or young adults, either in Australia or in Israel.

But the sisters feel Leifer is still a threat to other young girls.

"That statement actually scared us because she has shown no remorse the entire process," Ms Meyer said.

"I do not believe for a minute that she will not reoffend if she has the opportunity to."

They also look at the sentence as a start in showing the world that female perpetrators will be brought to justice.

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National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028