Jewish school ordered to pay $1m to student sexually abused by runaway principal

By Shannon Deery (Australian Herald Sun)
September 15, 2015

An ultra-orthodox Jewish school has been ordered to pay more than $1 million to a former student who was sexually abused by a runaway principal.

The windfall is believed to be the single biggest payout to a Victorian victim of child sexual abuse in a landmark case that could open the floodgates for waves of similar litigation.

And in a damning Supreme Court judgment handed down today, the school has been slammed for actively trying to cover up the abuse.

The former Adass Israel School student sued the college over claims she was routinely molested by former principal Malka Leifer.

The woman said she had been abused in Ms Leifer’s office, at her home and on school camps, and she believed that other teachers had known about the abuse.

“She would tell me that she loved me and that she really cared for me. She would tell me it was her way of telling me she loved me,” she said.

After allegations about Ms Leifer’s abuse were made public in 2008, the college board helped her flee to Israel just hours later under the cover of night.

Ms Leifer is wanted by Victoria Police but is vigorously fighting extradition attempts and has vowed to never return to Melbourne.

Supreme Court judge Justice Jack Rush today described Ms Leifer’s breach of trust as “monstrous” and ordered she personally pay $150,000 in damages to the former student.

“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that the conduct of Leifer was committed in circumstances of contumelious disregard of the plaintiff,” he said.

“I have described Leifer’s conduct previously as a massive breach of trust, yet this description does not adequately set out the destructive and evil nature of her sexual abuse of the plaintiff.

“The evidence discloses the sole motivation of Leifer in her dealings with the plaintiff was her own sexual gratification.

“Leifer used her position of power and authority within the school to manipulate the plaintiff’s sense of vulnerability.”

Justice Rush also slammed the school’s board for its co-operation in helping Ms Leifer flee Australia and avoid facing justice.

Just hours after learning of allegations of misconduct, the school’s committee of management held crisis talks and arranged for Ms Leifer to board the next flight out of Australia.

“The conduct of the board is deserving of this court’s disapprobation and denunciation. I have no doubt that the conduct was deliberate,” he said.

“The speed in standing her down was matched by the speed of the arranged departure.”

Justice Rush said the decision to arrange urgent flights was “likely motivated by a desire to conceal her wrongdoing and confine and isolate the conduct and its consequences to within the Adass community”.

“The conduct amounts to disgraceful, contumelious behaviour demonstrating a complete disregard of Leifer’s victims of which the plaintiff was one.

“The conduct demonstrates a disdain for due process of criminal investigation in this state.”

Justice Rush awarded the former student $851,780 for economic loss and $172,648 in medical expenses.

He also ordered the school pay $100,000 as punishment for helping Ms Leifer flee.

In a judgment that could have wide-ranging ramifications for other institutions, Justice Rush did not accept submissions that Ms Leifer was in some way removed from the school.

Adass lawyers had argued she did not “teach” at the school and that her involvement was through a separate program of religious education, meaning Adass couldn’t be held liable.

“The evidence demonstrates in fact that Leifer was the most powerful figure within the school itself,” Justice Rush said.

“Her control and authority within the school was unrestrained and unrestricted. In that sense, her misconduct was the misconduct of the school and the school is directly liable for her.”