Ex-principal faces child sex abuse charges in Australian court

Malka Leifer was a religious studies teacher and principal at Melbourne's Adass Israel School (above).
Malka Leifer was a religious studies teacher and principal at Melbourne's Adass Israel School (above).PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM GOOGLE MAPS

MELBOURNE (AFP) - A former principal accused of sexually abusing children at a Jewish ultra-Orthodox school in Australia appeared by video link on Monday (Sept 13) on the opening day of pre-trial hearings.

Malka Leifer, a dual Israeli-Australian citizen who was extradited to Australia in January, was shown on video from prison wearing a blue top with her hair covered in a white headscarf.

She denies 74 charges that include rape, indecent assault and child sexual abuse between 2004 and 2008, when she was a religious studies teacher and principal at the Adass Israel School in Melbourne.

The committal hearing in Melbourne that is expected to last until Sept 20 will decide whether there is enough evidence for Leifer to stand trial.

Looking downwards and frequently resting her chin in her left hand, Leifer spoke only to confirm that she could hear and see the proceedings at the Melbourne court, held by video during a Covid-19 lockdown.

"Yes, yes," she replied when prompted by a prison guard, after failing to reply when first asked by the magistrate.

Journalists were removed from the video hearing during testimony by her alleged victims.

Leifer was excused by the magistrate from appearing on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, which falls on Thursday, but the hearing is scheduled to continue on that day in her absence.

Her alleged victims are three sisters - Nicole Meyer, Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper - who publicly identified themselves in their push for Leifer to face charges.

Leifer, now in her 50s, fled Australia for Israel after allegations against her surfaced in 2008, moving with her family to the Emmanuel settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Australian authorities laid charges in 2012 and requested her extradition two years later.

She arrived in Melbourne on a flight in late January after six years of legal wrangling in Israel, including over whether she was feigning mental illness to avoid standing trial in Australia.

The Israeli Supreme Court rejected her lawyers' final appeal against extradition last December.