Members of Jewish community Adass Israel investigated over accused principal’s escape
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: When the principal of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school fled to Israel in the middle of the night, the students she was alleged to have abused were devastated.
That was nine years ago and Malka Leifer is still evading justice.
This afternoon Victoria Police confirmed it is investigating members of the Melbourne community who assisted her escape.
Reporter Louise Milligan met one of Leifer’s victims, who today landed in Israel to campaign for her extradition.
(Footage of Dassi Erlich with a friend at a cafe in Elsternwick, Melbourne)
DASSI ERLICH: I haven’t had any coffee yet today. (Laughs)
LOUISE MILLIGAN, REPORTER: It seems like a pretty ordinary scene: a 30-year-old woman out for coffee with her friend.
DASSI ERLICH: How old is Kes now?
DASSI ERLICH: Twenty. Yeah…
LOUISE MILLIGAN: But even though she has spent her entire life in this neighbourhood, for most of that time Dassi Erlich was strictly forbidden from doing anything as simple as this.
DASSI ERLICH: I didn’t know how to really exist in the outside world. I didn’t know how to do kind of the normal, everyday things that everybody else does outside of the community.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Dassi grew up in the tiny Jewish community, Adass Israel, here in Melbourne’s Ripponlea.
DASSI ERLICH: We didn’t grow up with any TV or that type of stuff. So, yeah. Just going to the cinema and watching a movie: that’s not something I had ever done before.
NICK MAZZEO, LAWYER: The Adass community is an ultra-Orthodox community, so it’s a very closed community. It involves about 200 families.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Dassi’s sheltered existence extended to the classroom. She went here, to the Adass Israel Girls’ School.
DASSI ERLICH: That’s all I knew. That was, you know, growing up and going to school and learning how to be a good Jewish mother; learning Jewish studies. That was my life.
Leaving school: I think I left school with a year seven maths and a year seven English.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Young Dassi was incredibly isolated and naive and was also struggling with a difficult family life – which made her a perfect target for school principal Malka Leifer.
DASSI ERLICH: Malka Leifer: she knew that I came from an abusive household. And she approached me with the intention of a person of support: someone that could help out with what was going on at home; someone that could listen and care.
And over time she molested and then raped me.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Two of her sisters were also allegedly targeted by Leifer.
DASSI ERLICH: There was no-one to tell. There was literally no-one to tell.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Did you know it was wrong?
DASSI ERLICH: On some level I knew it was wrong. I couldn’t – at the time I couldn’t state why it was wrong, because I didn’t have the words for it. But definitely it felt wrong.
NICK MAZZEO: The abuse was horrific and included penetration.
It’s a credit to her that she’s able to continue day by day and get through this trauma that she’s gone through.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Dassi was married off into the community while still a teenager, but the trauma resurfaced when she had a baby.
(Photograph of Dassi Erlich and her child at the beach)
LOUISE MILLIGAN: The day after this photo was taken, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
DASSI ERLICH: I was quite suicidal and I was self-harming.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Dassi told a psychologist about the abuse and later, while in hospital, reported to Victoria Police.
The Adass Israel School learned about Dassi’s complaint to a psychologist. In the heat of the moment, they made a very poor decision about what to do about Malka Leifer.
NICK MAZZEO: A meeting was held and – we’re talking within hours – airline tickets were booked and Leifer, along with her husband and children: they were flown out of the country to Israel.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: What does that say to you?
NICK MAZZEO: It’s disgraceful that people, knowing that a crime had been committed, would take those steps to remove someone from the jurisdiction.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: There are thought to be up to 15 alleged victims. Victoria Police eventually laid 74 charges against Malka Leifer.
But Dassi Erlich was treated as a traitor to her community and her parents.
DASSI ERLICH: By going forward to the police, my reputation was shot. So I left the community.
TED BAILLIEU, FORMER VICTORIAN PREMIER: She’s been through terrible times. To think she’s been abused by her principal, she’s been shunned by her community and she’s been chopped out by her own parents.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Forced to seek a new life, Dassi sued the school board and in 2015 Supreme Court justice Jack Rush awarded her $1.2 million: the largest Victorian damages payout to a victim of institutional abuse.
The judge said:
NICK MAZZEO: That the school’s conduct was “deplorable,” “disgraceful.” They are just a few of the words the he used.
He was very scathing of the way that the school conducted the case. There’s no doubt about that.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Leifer, meanwhile, is still in Israel. She has fought extradition, arguing she is too mentally unwell to face trial in Australia.
DASSI ERLICH: Malka Leifer is living a free life in Israel. She has absolutely no restrictions on her movement. She can go and come as she pleases.
(Dassi Erlich and her sister Elly meet Ted Baillieu in a Melbourne side street)
LOUISE MILLIGAN: So Dassi Erlich has embarked on a campaign to press Israel to extradite her former principal.
TED BAILLIEU: Hello.
DASSI ERLICH: Hi.
TED BAILLIEU: How are you, Dassi?
DASSI ERLICH: Good.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: She has some formidable supporters, like former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu.
TED BAILLIEU: I said to her, “Dassi, I’m happy to stand beside you on any public platform you like.” I said it a number of times and she took me up on it. And I’m very pleased to be able to help her.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Last month Mr Baillieu accompanied Dassi and her sister Elly, also a Leifer victim, to a meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The Prime Minister has today indicated he will raise the case with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
MALCOLM TURNBULL, PRIME MINISTER: What I’ll say is that justice demands that she be brought back to Australia to answer the charges.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Dassi Erlich has been negotiating for some time with the new Adass Israel School board to get a public apology to her and the other alleged victims of Malka Leifer.
The school had promised a lengthy statement to 7.30 today, but it never arrived.
Victoria Police this afternoon confirmed it is still investigating some members of the Adass community who helped Malka Leifer flee Australia nine years ago, in the middle of the night.
Dassi Erlich is taking her plea direct to the Israeli Government. Late yesterday she flew to Israel with her sisters.
For now, Malka Leifer remains protected inside a closed ultra-Orthodox community in central Israel.
DASSI ERLICH: I want to achieve justice. I want to ensure as well that there is awareness in Israel about this case, because Malka Leifer is living in a community around people that are as naive and as ignorant of these kind of issues as I was when I was growing up.
And if I can do anything to ensure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anybody else, that’s definitely a big goal of mine.