The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports Index

1993 Jan-May

The Dominion
April 7 1993

Guilty till proven innocent
by Murray Williams

The last child abuse charge facing three women crèche workers was dropped yesterday but their other battles are only just beginning. Murray Williams reports.


If Gaye Davidson, Marie Keys and Janice Buckingham had gone to trial in the Christchurch High Court on April 26 the charge they would have faced arose from what came to be called "the circle incident".

They were said to have encouraged a co-worker to place naked children in a large circle formed by 20 adults, who indecently assaulted the children and made them kick and hit each other.

While this was happening at the Civic Childcare Centre in Christchurch the adults, some of whom were said to have worn hoods, sang several songs, including I am a Cowboy and Baa Baa Black Sheep.

It sounds fantastic, but the charge, and three others dropped last month, were real, and so is their legacy of shattered careers, bruised families and debts.

The three women, and colleague Debbie Gillespie, who was earlier discharged on the one remaining charge, are legally free, but practically they are prisoners: of their debts, of the knowledge they will never be able to work again in careers they loved, and of fear they may have further encounters with people who have abused and threatened to kill them and damaged their properties.

Last spring the "Christchurch Four" were unaware their lives were about to be engulfed by allegations they had been involved in up to four of the 45 offences with which a co-worker, Peter Ellis, was charged in November 1991. (Ellis now faces 28 charges.)

Former supervisor Gaye Davidson said they had been pushing for answers on behalf of staff who lost their jobs when the Christchurch City Council abruptly dosed the crèche on September 3, 1992. (all 13 staff are now seeking $2.8 million in compensation from the council)

"We know the police said it had been shut for the safety of the kids ... but we didn't know what that meant and we had no idea we were being investigated."

Though they elected not to apply for name suppression so workmates would be free of suspicion, and were well aware of intense news media interest in their unprecedented case, they were still shocked by the speed with which some condemned them and the hate that drove others to mail bullets with names scratched on them and to make or mime death threats.

The day they were committed for trial some people in the packed court quietly chanted "guilty, guilty, guilty" and when one young woman turned to tell them "it's not for you to say" another woman turned on her saying "F... up, bitch". Othes said "hang, draw and quarter them" and "burn them at the stake".

Mrs Davidson, 39, said she and the othes had been devastated emotionally .and ruined financially.

So far they had received $5000 in legal aid but they each faced bills of more than $25,000 after the 11-week depositions hearing and before their lawyer Gerald Nation started work on five pre-trial applications.

At first she said she felt strongly that the .case should go to trial so the public could se e it thrown out by a jury, and "not just dropped", but by last week she had had enough and just wanted it to end.

Once the initial shock of her October 1 arrest had faded Ms Davidson said she expected to receive a telephone call from the police.

I kept thinking 'they know they have made a mistake, they are going to ring up and apologise'. I was like that for three or four days.

"It's such a devastating thing to be charged with such an emotive thing. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined ... that people I knew as parents would believe I could have done this."

She said she was treated fairly during the search of her house but had no idea it and the interviews that followed were to end with her arrest.

"The whole thing seemed totally weird and stupid and I treated it like that because I thought 'these people are crazy' ….so I wasn't really angry."

Since then she has often wondered why the police did not visit the crèche before it was closed and why they did not use an undercover officer as she was told later that she and at least three colleagues had been under suspicion for about six weeks before the closure.

"They decided we were child abusers then let us operate for nearly two more months."

Assistant supervisor Marie Keys. 44, said the officers who searched her house looked under the floor and in the ceiling and even opened every board game to make sure there was nothing inside.

"They didn't need to raid my house like that ... my eldest daughter was still home…."

Later, she remembered her astonishment when a woman detective asked if she had ever been fingerprinted.

"We were the subject of a major investigation and they didn't know I'd never been arrested or involved with the police in any way .... the only time I had been to the police station was to report a stolen bicycle."

While she was questioned at the Christchurch central police station not far from the crèche where she worked for eight years, Mrs Keys felt as if she was observing events from inside a bubble, unable to comprehend that anyone with any common sense could think she was capable of taking part in or condoning abuse of young children.

"I no longer trust (the police] ... you read the court pages with different eyes."

She said the (dismissed) charge that Debbie Gillespie performed an indecent act in a public place by having sexual intercourse with Ellis in the toilets in front of two children was ridiculous: the toilets were easily accessible and the crèche had a steady stream of visitors so anyone walking in would have seen them.

A registered teacher and qualified childcare worker, she said she still could not face taking her toddler nephew to or from the local playcentre.

"I am not ready to go into a place like that ... it's sad, it's the playcentre our girls went to and I'd love to go back and see it all again."

After her arrest Mrs Keys said she was so angry and upset she would have passed by an injured child without stopping to help.

"I would still be extremely careful ... I'd like there to be somebody else around, and if there was I'd leave it to them.

"I'd be the one who rang for help rather than actually touch the child, which is against all my natural instincts."

Mrs Keys, a member of the board of trustees at her daughters' high school, said they had reported no problems with other children, though she had received one obscene call.

"We've have great support from friends and neighbours and we have tried to keep life as normal as possible."

The women said they had long since lost count of the sleepless nights, the time spent trying to find reasons why they were charged, and the number of rumours they had heard.

According to one, some children had been counselled for the effect of "ritualistic abuse" that involved snakes smuggled by air force personnel at Wigram, while others said prominent people were involved and strings had been pulled.

Though children told Social Welfare interviewers of being videotaped during various abuses no tapes were ever found, which the women say is not surprising because they never existed, though video cameras were used to film children during crèche activities and when a party of Japanese teachers visited.


The four said they survived because they knew they were all innocent and had a strong network of family and friends who supported them from the beginning, ferrying them to and from court and staying to make sure nothing happened, cooking meals, arranging morale-maintaining weekly lunches and doing their best to make life bearable for their children.

Still being able to laugh no matter how bad things looked also helped, and they said when someone was down the others were able to help keep their spirits up.

"We were all blessed with a damn good sense of humour, you have to have one when you work wiyh young kids, so we had a slight advantage, I suppose," Mrs Buckingham said.

A part-time worker, she said the crèche was the best place she ever worked and during her seven years there she never saw anything that gave her the slightest cause for alarm or noticed anything in the children's demeanour that worried her.

Mrs Buckingham, 44, said she got through the first day by being able to "mother" Debbie Gillespie and taking her mind off what was happening.

She said she told the.police she would tell them the truth but thought they were not interested in hearing it.

"What got me was the feeling they were not conducting an investigation at all. They had made up their minds that we were guilty. There was no objectivity."

When she was arrested she remembered thinking "I am a grandmother, for God's sake! and when they said 'Marie did this, Gay did this, Debbie did that' ... I was thinking Marie? Gay?  Debbie? ….you have GOT to be kidding!"

The times it had been hardest to laugh, other than trying to find new recipes for mince or meet mortgage payments,were when children were affected, Mrs Buckingham said.

Her youngest daughter had been given a hard time by some schoolmates who told her they could not come to her house because they would not be safe there.

l think that was probably just juvenile manipulation ....but my eldest daughter took three abusive calls one night and someone used weedkiller to paint "child  molester" on the grass in front of the house.

"If it's directed at you, you can cope, but if it's directed at your kids it's much worse.

"One of the hardest things is that I have always felt I was a 'respected member of the community' and it's very hard to adjust to feeling like scum and being very careful where you go."

She said she had not realised how hard the case had been on her children till the day the charges were reduced from four to one.

"My eldest was crying and my two great bulking sons were leaping round the kitchen hugging me and dancing ...they were absolutely jubilant."

Mrs Buckingham said she worried the case would create unnecessary anxieties among child care workers.

We've heard that toileting is inadequate at some and that kids are not getting cuddled as much as they were."

It could also have a negative effect on males at a time when many fathers were becoming more active parents, she said.

"you just need one idiot to point the finger.