Sisters abused by ultra-Orthodox principal share pain

AAP, Australia/June 28, 2023

By Karen Sweeney

The first person to tell Elly Sapper that she was loved was Malka Leifer, her school principal and a woman highly revered in her ultra Orthodox Jewish community.

Sapper was raised in a home devoid of love and affection, and yearned for the care Leifer purported to be providing.

"Faced with the painful truth that her love wasn't real was a betrayal of such magnitude it left me broken," Sapper told Leifer at a pre-sentence hearing in the Victorian County Court on Wednesday.

Leifer, the former principal and head of religion at the Adass Israel School, was convicted in April of sexually abusing Sapper and her sister Dassi Erlich when they were students between 2003 and 2007.

A jury of six men and six women found her guilty of 18 charges including rape, indecent assault and sexual penetration of a child aged 16 or 17.

The 56-year-old mother of eight was acquitted of nine charges, including five against the siblings' older sister Nicole Meyer.

Leifer appeared in court by video link from the prison where she has been held since extradited from Israel in 2020.

Sapper struggled to quantify the impacts of the abuse on her life.

But supported by her family and friends, she refused to let the broken fragments of herself define her entirely.

"I will not allow my abuse to diminish my present, or my future," she said.

She was pregnant when she gave evidence against Leifer during a weeks-long trial earlier this year.

Her daughter was a light in the darkness after years of trying to get pregnant and many pregnancy losses.

She said she knew she needed to be strong as she gave evidence against Leifer, because she carried a future life.

"Six days before the verdict we lost our little girl - her heart stopped beating," she said.

"There were no concrete answers, there were no abnormalities - I will never know if the stress, anxiety of years of trauma contributed to the loss of my little girl."

Erlich said there were no words she had wanted to hear more than when Leifer told her she loved her like a mother.

The insidiousness of the abuse perpetrated by Leifer against her fractured her trust forever.

The woman she believed would be a source of safety became an architect of her pain.

"Relationships exist in a perpetual juggle between desire for connection and the echoes of her trauma," she said.

She often wonders if Leifer takes pride in knowing she irreversibly altered her existence.

She believes she does, seeing no evidence of remorse.

But she said Leifer could not break her spirit.

"Today I stand as a survivor - your darkness does not define me," Erlich said.

"Instead I choose to focus on the light - I am resilient, I am powerful and I am so much more than the limitations you chose to impose on me."

Meyer sat with her sisters in court and is expected to read her own statement outside court later on Wednesday.

A pre-sentence hearing before Judge Mark Gamble is expected to run for two days.

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