A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case
Longacre Press, $59.95,
At the end of March 1992, when I heard about the arrest of Peter Ellis on a number of charges relating to the sexual abuse of children, I breathed a sigh of relief. Since coming to Christchurch at the beginning of 1988 to take up a lectureship in sociology at the University of Canterbury, I had heard numerous tales of rampant paedophilia. The very month I arrived, the “Great Christchurch Child Pornography Ring” story had broken, and rumour was rife that a group of perverts, among them respected members of the Christchurch community, was sexually exploiting young children for monetary gain. As a professional criminologist, I was told by several individuals that they knew people who were directly involved, but that they were too terrified by the possible consequences to speak out. Outraged by this apparent intimidation, I swore not to be cowed and urged them to show me the evidence so that the villains could be brought to justice. But like the police, and like television journalist Melanie Reid, whom I befriended at this time, no sooner did I seem close to discovery than the trail went suddenly cold.
So when I heard that a man named Ellis had been arrested for paedophilia I thought, “Good job!”– the porn ring had finally been cracked. There were no accomplices identified, but six months later I was not surprised to read that four more creche workers had been charged as well. I was taken aback to discover that the alleged accomplices were women – I had expected men – and I was intrigued when the charges against the women were suddenly dropped, with no change to Ellis’s situation. I therefore watched the trial’s progress carefully, reported in detail each day by Press journalist, Martin van Beynen.
By trial’s end, my opinion had changed. I could not understand how the charges had been laid in the first place. The children had disclosed nothing when spoken to initially, and when they began to talk, after months of badgering from parents and therapists, much of what they said was nonsensical childish whimsy. No behavioural problems had been noticed during the period of alleged abuse; no children had complained of anything at the time; most of the alleged activity had occurred at a busy, open-plan creche without any adults seeing anything; and there was no medical or physical evidence to support any of the charges. It was plain that the evidence against Ellis was completely unreliable and I seriously doubted that anything had taken place at all. Yet Ellis was convicted on 16 counts involving seven children and sentenced to ten years in prison.
How on earth could this have happened? As I learned more about the case and got to know some of those involved I began to understand; but for years those of us with an interest in the matter awaited elucidation from the book that we knew a Dunedin writer called Lynley Hood was writing about it.
For seven years Lynley Hood, author of an award-winning book on Sylvia Ashton-Warner and another on executed baby-farmer Minnie Dean, researched the Peter Ellis affair. Her research required her to investigate not only the facts of the case itself, but also the backgrounds of the principal characters within it. And she had to become conversant with aspects of psychology, psychiatry, sociology and law, as well as with the historical processes that led to the current situation. Finally, having untangled and examined the numerous threads that make up the Peter Ellis story, she had to weave them into a comprehensible and readable format.
The result is nothing less than outstanding; an encyclopaedic work of professorial quality. Hood’s 616-page treatment is a compelling authority; an opus so deep, detailed, insightful and comprehensive, that nobody could now be said to have an informed opinion about the case without having read her book. Hood begins by reviewing the rise of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, and showing how, after moderate women began leaving at the end of the 1970s, the movement became hijacked by radicals and lesbians with an anti-male agenda. Having concocted false and alarmist figures about rates of child sexual abuse by men, certain women managed to convince the New Zealand public that the problem was rampant and that extraordinary measures were needed to control it. As a result, between 1985 and 1993, a number of law changes were made. Henceforth, members of the public kept a vigilant eye open for evidence of sexual abuse, and fathers and male child-care workers began to worry about being falsely accused. The more prudent moved to new occupations.
Having worked at the Christchurch Civic Creche since 1986, Peter Ellis didn’t move. He loved his job and he enjoyed playing and skylarking with the kids at his work, blissfully unaware of the risks he was taking.
As Hood tells it, once the ritual abuse scare began in childcare facilities overseas in the early 1980s, it was inevitable that it would find its way to New Zealand. Once here, given the wide-eyed fascination of the Christchurch community with fantastic sex abuse scenarios – such as the Glenelg Health Camp, the Ward 24, and the Great Child Pornography fiascos of the 1980s – it was probable that some sort of panic would break out in Christchurch. Given that the Civic Creche catered for many parents with left-wing tendencies, a number of whom worked in the sexual abuse area, and/or had accused others of sexually abusing their children in the past, it was likely that when the panic came to Christchurch, the Civic Creche would be involved. And when the panic came to the creche, Peter Ellis, gay, flamboyant and most importantly, the only male childcare worker on the site, was the most likely person to be accused.
So although he had no way of knowing it, from the moment he began working at the Civic Creche, Ellis was a fated man.
The initial suspicion arose following a number of visits to Christchurch by American ritual abuse specialists, when one of the children at the creche made a strange remark about Peter’s “black penis”. No explanation for this comment was ever found but word spread quickly and alarmed parents suddenly began interrogating their children about possible abuse, and taking them to the police for evidentiary interviews. The interviews revealed nothing of substance and after a month the inquiry was closed. However two months later, after constant badgering by some parents, a small number of children began to say they had been abused. As Hood succinctly puts it, “Finally, in late-February 1992, after three months of parental questioning about Peter Ellis, nudity, sex, breasts, vaginas, penises, ejaculation, bottoms, scariness, naughtiness, soreness, secrets, yukky touching, toileting, poos, wees and the creche, the kids started talking dirty.”
Once the panic started, children refusing to disclose were harassed repeatedly by investigators, who refused to leave them alone until they began to talk in the required manner. If the kids said nothing happened, they weren’t believed; if they said they didn’t know, they weren’t believed; if they said they had made their stories up, they weren’t believed. Bit by bit, the children with parents who allowed multiple interviewing fell into line, making more extreme, contradictory and preposterous allegations as time went on. And the more extraordinary the children’s claims, the more frenetic the parents and investigators became. The final outcome was a litany of the strangest things that kids – whose minds have been polluted by incessant dirty talk and leading questioning – can think of. They said, inter alia, that Peter, often with others, kicked them in the kneecaps, danced around naked, kept a giraffe in his house, put his penis, sticks, food and burning paper up their bums, made them drink wees, did poos in the bath, did poos in their faces, did wees on their heads, did wees in their mouths, put his penis in their mouths, killed a little boy, and dug up Jesus.
The interview transcripts provided by Hood make it clear that the kids didn’t really know what had or hadn’t happened, or what they were supposed to say. They contradicted themselves; they couldn’t remember what they’d said before; they changed their minds almost randomly; they said their mothers had told them what had happened; and they said they wanted to go home. None of the hundreds of creche children who were not subjected to multiple interviews and parental harassment spoke of any of these things. Nor did any of the complainant children, before the interrogations began. And nobody noticed any of these things at the time, allegedly happening right under their noses. Yet none of the psychiatrists, or social workers, or police who were involved in the case appears to have seriously considered the possibility that the children’s tales were nothing but adult-driven fantasy. Even the trial judge, who, on the grounds of “relevancy”, allowed the jury to hear only the most credible parts of the children’s testimony, was convinced that Ellis was guilty. So, apparently were the majority of judges who were involved in the case throughout the appeals process. Their rigid commitment has not been swayed by the retraction of the oldest and most compelling of the child witnesses, who now says that she made up her stories of abuse because she thought that was what her parents wanted.
For Ellis to have done the things he was convicted of, over a period of years, without a child saying anything of substance and without anybody noticing, he would have to have been a magician or a sorcerer. But that was no problem for the prosecution team. In a process chillingly reminiscent of the witch trials of Renaissance Europe, they believed the substance of the allegations, they overlooked the impossibilities and absurdities within them, and they prosecuted Ellis with the greatest possible vigour. As the net closed slowly around this victim, there was no way out. Tightly ensnared, Ellis was hauled before a court of law, judged by a jury with only a fraction of the facts in front of it, and sentenced to a decade in prison. He never stood a chance. Mother Theresa would not have escaped.
As Hood notes in the final chapter of her book, the failure of the High Court, two appeal benches, and a ministerial inquiry to provide a remedy speaks loudly of a need for a full-blown commission of inquiry not only into the case of Peter Ellis, but into the whole system that allowed the injustice to happen and be sustained.
Ellis completed his sentence in February 2000. Today, he stands as guilty as he was judged in 1993 and his appeal avenues have virtually been exhausted. A judicial pardon remains his only realistic option. This remedy has rarely been used, most notably in 1979, in the double murder case of Arthur Allan Thomas. Like Ellis, Thomas spent years in prison while the process of justice failed him. Finally, it was the publication of three books on the case that convinced the Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, to set up yet another investigation and on the basis of this, Thomas was pardoned. A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the case chaired, significantly, not by a New Zealand judge but by one from New South Wales, was then convened and a million dollars in compensation was awarded.
But the Ellis case is different from Thomas’s, because Ellis lacks government support. The Minister of Justice has declared he is satisfied with the outcome of the ministerial inquiry he set up, and he has wiped his hands of the matter. The Prime Minister herself has been silent. The complainants’ parents are fixed in their belief that their children have been abused, and any official departure from the decisions of the courts would invite a shrill response from them. Many are Labour supporters and the Government needs their votes. It was a politician who saved Arthur Allan Thomas and with Ellis, too, it is politics, not justice, that is driving the case. For this reason, he is unlikely to share Thomas’s good fortune, at least in the short term.
However, many people believe that Ellis is not guilty. Cynical journalists like Frank Haden, David McLoughlin, Melanie Reid, George Balani, and Martin van Beynen – the only journalist to have sat right through the trial – clearly agree. As more people read Lynley Hood’s book, and learn how Peter Ellis was railroaded into infamy, the injustice of his case will become increasingly accepted. History will judge Peter Ellis to have been convicted, like the witches who were burned in the Renaissance, on the basis not of reason, but of blind hysteria and prejudice. At some point, this may be officially recognised. But at the moment the judiciary is turning away from the plight of a man impugned by some of the most absurd testimony ever heard in a New Zealand court.
Greg Newbold is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Canterbury.