By Michael Short (The Age)
September 24, 2016
There is a school in the inner Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick that exclusively serves a small and secretive Jewish sect, the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel community, comprising about 200 families. It has been the scene of shocking sexual abuse, and is at the centre of an ongoing scandal that allegedly involves community members helping to finance the life of the exiled perpetrator, the predatory former principal Malka Leifer, who was protected by school leaders after her crimes were discovered.
The Adass Israel School looks like a prison. Upon its looming, grim walls perch security cameras. Its gates are locked. Security guards prowl throughout the day. These unusual measures are presumably to protect the children. But the enemy has been within.
There is no suggestion of which I am aware that current students are being abused. But the available evidence indicates the school leaders have failed to adequately grasp their responsibility to ensure any current or former members of the school community can seek the most appropriate help should they have been involved in the Leifer atrocity or any similar occurrence.
The entire situation is a tragedy and a travesty. Back in 2008, Leifer, a mother of eight, was found to have abused girls under her charge. Instead of denouncing her to the police, school leaders immediately arranged a late-night flight and she escaped to Israel, where she remained at large for several years. The tickets were funded by members of the Adass community.
Supreme Court judge Jack Rush has indicated in a judgement that some of the school and community leaders responsible for such a perversion of justice may well have broken the law, and police are reportedly belatedly investigating. What sort of message does protecting a child-sex criminal send to the obedient and reserved members of the Adass community, who undoubtedly cherish their children as much as any other people? When he awarded one of Leifer's victims $1.2 million compensation last year, Justice Rush lambasted then and current Adass Israel school board president Yitzhak Benedikt and board member Mark Ernst for organising the 1.20am flight - hours after her sacking - in full knowledge of the hideous, criminal abuse of trust and power she had allegedly committed.
The judge said: "It is apparent that either it was not a priority for Messrs Benedikt or Ernst that Leifer answered to the criminal law of this state or that this state's jurisdiction was deliberately flouted," Justice Rush found. "Upon consideration of the manner in which the school arranged for Leifer's departure from the country, I find the deliberate flouting of jurisdiction the most likely motivation." His honour said Benedikt knew Leifer she was a "serial sexual abuser".
Leifer was finally apprehended and placed under house arrest in Israel, and Australia has been seeking her extradition for years. She reportedly made it clear to friends and family that she would do anything to prevent her return to face more than 70 charges. She's had lamentable success at evading a reckoning and one could be forgiven for thinking that she is again being protected, this time by medical and legal professionals in Israel who should be concerned about her child victims rather than this disgrace of a woman.
Every time she's due to face court, Leifer argues she's suffering so much anxiety she simply can not show up. She's recently been released and roams free in a community that reportedly is horrified she's near their children.
It gets worse. The Israeli court has decided the woman has such bad anxiety she might not be able to front the court for 10 years. It beggars belief, and is a terrible insult to the Adass community here and particularly to the victims and their families. It also beggars belief that some members of the Adass community are reportedly sending her money to fund her existence in Israel.
Now, back to the school's failure to respond properly, even in the face of this long-running denial of justice and decency to innocent children and young people in the Adass community. A few months ago - yes, about eight years after the crimes were discovered - school president Benedikt and Binyomin Koppel, the convenor of the Adass Israel Mosdos Hachinuch congregation, wrote to the school community to inform them they had taken steps to comply with the Government's Child Safe Standards.
That's at least something, but the letter contained no real apology. Noting media coverage (would they have acted otherwise?), they said: "We acknowledge past cases of abuse. We recognise the distress caused to victims and others affected and, on behalf of our community, we want them to know that the entire community stands with them. We assure the whole community that we are working to ensure that such events do not happen again."
Given the Leifer saga, including the reported ongoing financial support, perhaps that nebulous statement should be treated with scepticism, particularly because of the letter's worst flaw. Instead of doing what they so evidently should have a long time ago - advise those who might have something to report to go to the police and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - Benedikt and Koppel said this: "If you feel you need support, there are a number of services that can assist you including: Jewish Care: Call the Front Door on 8517 5999 and ask to speak with a Social Worker; Child First 1300 721 383. We wish you success in all your endeavours in health and happiness."
Indeed. Well they might. Meanwhile, Malka Leifer is on the loose, with impunity. She may well be anxious. It's treatable. One way or another, she must be brought back to Australia.
Royal Commission: 1800 099 340. Victoria Police's Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team: 9556 6128. Lifeline: 13 11 14.
Michael Short is The Age's chief editorial writer. @shortmsgs