Alone in a cell in Paparua Prison's maximum security wing, Peter Ellis has begun serving a 10-year jail sentence. A jury was certain of his guilt: convicted out of the mouths of very young children, Ellis had betrayed his trust. Outwardly the darling of an inner-city creche, he had secretly abused his charges for five years without once being suspected. But outside the courtroom people were already saying it was impossible, that something was wrong with the system that Ellis had become a victim himself. Fellow creche workers and friends were demanding an inquiry. His lawyers were planning an appeal. How could he have committed such crimes? Some remain certain that he did not.
Lesley Ellis, a nearly identical version of her son, left the courtroom for god-knows-what limbo of her own. Ellis's supporters, the four women who had faced the same accusations but had been discharged, friends, a few parents of children at the creche where he had once worked, promised to renew their demands for an inquiry. The parents of the children he had been convicted of abusing looked satisfied that their enemy was being locked away for a very long time.
The event was dispassionate: this was, after all, only the tailpiece. The real drama had been enacted two weeks before when Ellis, after a lower court hearing lasting three months and a High Court trial of six weeks, was found guilty on 16 of 25 charges of sexually abusing children at the Christchurch Civic Creche, where he had been a childcare worker for five years.
A jury was out for three days before judging Ellis to be the worst child abuser in this country's history. In those three days, all the anger and suffering – the enmities created by 18 months of investigation and accusation – divided parents, friends, supporters and hung in the air with the cigarette smoke.
Once these people had been friends, sometimes close friends; visiting each other's houses, playing with each other's kids. Inside the courtroom, even jammed together, the divisions between Ellis's accusers and his supporters were as clear as a fault-line. Outside, the parents took over the waiting room. At first the door was kept open; this was simply a place where parents and their friends were. But, as the jury stayed out, first through the day, then the night, and so on for two nights and three days, the room became territory the parents had marked out for themselves, closed to intruders. The parents, not the once-accused or Ellis's supporters, felt under siege, beleaguered here; their status as victims under threat.
In the open area outside the room, Ellis's people waited alongside lawyers, journalists, film crews; sitting on the floor, talking in nervous bursts. "It's like waiting for a death," said Marie Keys, one of the four discharged women creche workers. Children in both areas played with colouring books, puzzles, ate popcorn. "Kids in court?" someone asked dubiously, not noticing the irony.
Then the jury came back. Nine women and three men had voted for a man as foreman. He sat in the front row with five women beside him; mostly in their late 40s and 50s, some with the dyspeptic look that comes with never enough money and the kids leaving their shoes on the beach. In the back row, two men, solid-looking types; one older and three younger women, one who had had the leery eye of the back-row critic as she watched defence lawyer Robin Harrison deliver his closing address with a little waltz – three steps away from the podium, three steps back; another whose eyes were usually invisible behind glasses that reflected the courtroom.
I had watched them as a witness – a mother – had described taking her two children and a third child on a car journey. On the way back, the third child began masturbating: one of her children, the witness had said, had his hands over his face, terrified. He was so frightened, in fact, that she had persuaded the child to stop masturbating.
One of the juror's mouths had turned down so much that it seemed likely to thud onto the rail of the jury box. Whatever happened, I had imagined her asking herself, to the old days of the scything backhand over the car seat?
The first "guilty" from the jury foreman was greeted by a mother's nervous laughing cheer, which could as well have been a sob; one by one the complainant parents began crying softly as the verdicts were announced, until it was finished, and the Ellis faction had left the courtroom. Left alone the parents hugged, and cried in relief that it was over.
Over? Mr Justice Williamson, at Ellis’ sentencing, declared the jury's verdict to be the right one. Unlike those who had publicly feasted off the case, he said, the jury had seen and heard all the evidence. They disbelieved Ellis, believed the children; and the judge, as if wishing he could clear up the doubts that existed outside the court, strongly agreed with them.
Yet four women creche workers, also confronted by the evidence of children, had earlier been discharged. Were the children to be believed sometimes and not others? Could Ellis have abused the children under the very noses of parents and staff for five years with no one noticing, not a single child complaining?
The ripples spread far beyond the courtroom. At the edges, one side believed the evidence presented in court was only the tip of the iceberg; that the children were being ritually abused in Satanic rites, that they were being prostituted for an organised child pornography ring. The other side argued just as vehemently that the charges were fiction, a work of the burgeoning sex abuse industry; that they were drummed up by an unholy alliance between feminists and fundamentalist Christians.
Only 18 months earlier there had been no sides; they had been indistinguishable, all of them involved in an inner-city creche where the boundaries between parents and staff were sometimes invisible, where they went to each other's houses and children's birthday parties and they were all, more or less, a large group of friends.
It began when a parent listened to her child saying, "I don't like Peter's black penis." That sentence began the biggest child abuse inquiry this country has seen. The parent reported it to the creche supervisor Gay Davidson; Davidson went to the creche's licensee, the Christchurch City Council.
Ellis was suspended. Creche staff, parents, city and social welfare officials and police were summoned to a meeting in December, 1991. Some parents, alarmed, demanded counselling for their children. They were told to go home, watch their children closely and report unusual behaviour. After a few weeks there proved to be plenty of that. Soon the Social Welfare Department's specialist services were making bookings for interviews far in advance.
At first, the accusations seemed to come to nothing. Two weeks after that meeting, a letter from Colin Eade, a detective with the police child abuse unit in Christchurch, told the city council that the children had said nothing damning and that, although police were suspicious of Ellis, the investigation was closed.
But soon "disclosures" – one of the routine terms in the vocabulary of abuse – were tumbling out. By the end of their investigation police had interviewed 116 children. Eighty of them, they believed – and still believe – had been abused. Of those 80, 13 children from 11 families remained when Ellis's trial began in the High Court. Many of the others, according to police, could not face the rigours of the complaints procedure, the repeated interviews and the court appearances.
The child of the original complainant was not one of the 13. He refused to disclose anything. He was taken away from the civic creche and placed in another, where his mother laid a further complaint of abuse against another male worker. Again, no charges were laid.
Police, meanwhile, were first wary then aghast at the accusations being made. They were confronted by children telling of ritual and satanic abuse, of cameras and graphic descriptions of what they thought could be an organised child pornography ring. They dropped the satanic connection; they had discovered no hard evidence, despite the children's descriptions of circles and rites.
The pornography ring was a
well-known story in
In the early 80s it was a place run by young radicals for urban liberals, where children could, essentially, do what they liked. Jenny Wealleans, who worked at the creche then and was still there when it closed last year, was never quite comfortable in those early days. "The children climbed in and out of windows. They never washed their hands before they ate. There were leaves, stuff everywhere. It was deliberate - the creche believed in free play. The noticeboard was full of political messages - about feminism, banning the bomb, stopping the tour. Everything was non-sexist. You could never talk about the postman. There was no discipline, no guidelines. The children ruled the parents."
Wealleans, who relieved both there
and at another creche in
Eventually the kids became too much, even for creche staff. The Christchurch City Council found itself confronted by the staff's concerns about the "advanced sexual knowledge" of the children. There was far more sexual experimentation among the children than the staff felt was natural. Far too many children spending too much time masturbating. There was a new supervisor at the creche by then, Dora Reinfeld. She cried, "Enough."
In those days there was a curious
connection between the creche and a house beside the
The place seemed to spawn childcare workers: seven staff who worked at the creche over the years can be traced back to the house. What was its significance? Robbie Davidson, Gay Davidson's former husband, described it as a magical place whose currency was ideas, where radicalism was the norm, where people of the Left gathered, talked, acted. He became a close friend of Michael Howard, a civic creche worker. Howard was a charismatic figure who declared he would never live past 40 and who in fact committed suicide in his thirties, in 1984.
Police were curious about the interraction between the house and the creche, but are still no wiser. "I don't know the whole story," said a frustrated Detective Sergeant Bob Hardie, who was attached to the child abuse unit for the creche investigation. "It's like a book with some of the pages torn out."
The poor woman who has lived in the house for many years and was once Michael Howard's partner had nothing to do with the Ellis case and is desperate about the invasion of her privacy, which has resulted in, among other things, graffiti being splashed along her fence. The link between the house 'and the creche seems to have been the spirit of curiosity in the place, which lapped into the culture of the civic creche. The core group moved away from politics and onto the search for internal truths, but left its mark.
Gay Davidson arrived at the creche in 1984, first as a reliever, then as Dora Reinfeld's deputy, then, in 1987, as creche supervisor. By then the creche had moved away from the heady spirit of the early 80s, but it still had a distinctive culture, which parents both fostered and were proud of.
It was a free place, attracting all kinds of people: professionals, urban intellectuals, the urban poor; affluent people and parents on benefits. Its racial mix was limited, but if you ask parents or staff about who used the creche, the answer is the same: a proud, "a real cross-section". They were urban liberals and the creche culture both reflected that and fostered it. When Peter Ellis arrived in July 1986 to do 80 hours' community service he was, by and large, welcomed.
Both Ellis's parents were teachers. He, his three brothers and a sister had moved around the country as the father changed schools. He was intelligent, articulate, artistic, funny, outrageous. Parents, staff and children all liked him and he was, by all accounts, considered as good with children as he was with animals, until that day in 1991 when everything collapsed.
Ellis had been grappling with drinking and stress problems in 1983-4 and had had a number of jobs before he committed a minor benefit fraud and went to the creche on community service. He was so successful that he was offered a temporary job, then a permanent one, and eventually became a fully trained childcare worker.
It wasn't as if he was an altogether unknown quantity. Malcolm Cox, a parent whose child was at the creche at the time, knew he was gay: "Maybe it was something to do with the mascara, when I was running around being a corporate warrior in a suit." Gay Davidson sized him up immediately. "He was obviously gay. Well, I thought he was gay and it turned out he was bisexual. He wasn't over the top, I just thought he was." No one though, spent much time pondering- "It wasn't an issue. There was no discussion It just wasn't an issue."
Yet it was, in a curious sort of way. Some parents, at least, weren't just aware of Ellis’s sexuality, they were proud of it. They felt it added another dimension to their children's lives.
As for staff . . . well Ellis was first and foremost, they thought, very good with children His sexuality didn't enter into their calculations and if it did. they felt positively about it. Why not? Most paedophiles, after all, are heterosexual. At Kia Marama, the sex offenders' unit at Rolleston prison, 92 percent of child sex abusers are heterosexual.
Generally there's a shortage of men working with young children. While some women believe that's how it should be, others feel an imbalance.
Which is not to say that Ellis's behaviour at the creche was impeccable. Davidson censured him several times. Once he had decorated children's bodies with ivy, running right down to their buttocks. She had found him playing a game with the children once, hanging them on a fence by their jerseys. Then she discovered that he had been drinking at lunchtimes, and told him that, if he ever did it again, his job would be on the line. She reported the matter to the city council, and she went to the city council when she found him standing over children threateningly; the council wrote him a reprimanding letter.
Yet Davidson says all those incidents were isolated, and only begin to look serious when they're compressed.
Besides, it was part of his personality; his outrageousness, his desire to shock. No one complained of his conversations about golden showers, the use of sticks and needles and food in sex, until after he had been suspended, although some did not like the subjects; evidently, such talk was at least tolerated. It was accepted by everyone, staff and parents, that this was a tolerant atmosphere.
Sometimes it went beyond that. At least one of the women staff was capable of joking about sex with children; even committee members could reportedly joke about paedophiles at the creche.
Ellis had committed a minor benefit fraud, but was otherwise clean. For his community service he was given the choice of working with children at the creche, or animals at the SPCA. He took the creche job, which the police now say should have alerted the probation officer. Ellis had a whole menagerie of animals, dogs, cats, ferrets, chooks. Why, they ask, would he have forsaken animals for children? Surely that should have rung alarm bells?
The probation service – now community corrections officers – wouldn't allow us to talk to the officer concerned on the basis that it was unfair to so expose him or her. Besides, the regional manager of Community Corrections, Warwick Duell, pointed out, Ellis spent only 80 hours on community service; he was then taken on fulltime at the creche, qualified as a childcare worker and worked for five years and no one – not staff, teachers, city council officers, parents or review officers – ever suspected him of child abuse.
Community Corrections will still place people on community service with childcare centres if the centres want them. The question of putting people with criminal records amid the most vulnerable section of the community does not seem to have been debated. "Extreme discretion and a filtering process are put in place," declared Duell – unconvincingly, in the light of Ellis's conviction.
Peter Johnston, senior
psychologist in charge at the Kia Marama sex offenders' unit thought it
showed poor judgment to send a person with a criminal record to work with
children, because it indicated impulse-control problems, a lack of social
concern and empathy. On the other hand, most child sex abusers don't have
criminal records and are very good at manipulative behaviour to both hook
their victims and disguise themselves: "We've worked with priests,
church elders, people who are the epitome of social responsibility,"
Certainly, another government agency which inspected the creche closely found nothing amiss. An Education Review Office (ERO) report on the creche in November, 1991, only a week or two before the fateful parents' meeting, was lyrical. Said the ERO, which replaced the old school inspectorate: "The staff ensure personal needs are met with warmth, care and consideration. The children appear happy, inquisitive and sociable . . . The centre provides a warm, accepting and welcoming environment where personal wellbeing is promoted . . ." And so on.
Ellis was on leave at the time. But Graham Cochrane, the ERO's district manager, said the review team found no evidence of abuse: "The review team met the parents' committee, talked to 20 or 30 parents, management, city council staff, and not one word about maltreatment was spoken."
Nine months later Rosemary Smart,
a counsellor with the Presbyterian support services' Campbell Centre in
Hindsight? Perhaps. Yet, why weren't staff worried? Smart's explanation was because they hadn't been trained to recognise the signs. The creche workers' explanation was more basic: there was nothing, they insisted, to arouse concern. They were convinced that Peter Ellis was innocent.
Both Smart and investigating police attached to the child abuse unit produced another explanation: the culture of the creche. "The centre had followed a fairly liberal tradition," wrote Smart, "supported by fairly liberal parents. This tradition may have made it more difficult to challenge behaviour that deviated from the norm."
Difficult? Perhaps no one wanted to challenge that behaviour. This was no suburban repository for kids. These were not parents who would automatically send their children to the local kindergarten, the neighbourhood schools. They agonised over the choice. The civic creche was a place where adults who were seriously into parenting placed their children because they wanted them to develop and grow.
The central issue, Mr Justice Williamson said, as he began his summing up for the jury at Ellis's trial, was whether to believe the children: the Crown said they told the truth, the defence that they told lies because of pressure from parents or children or other authorities.
This is the major debate. One side says that children, uncorrupted by experience, do not lie. The other asks how you can believe children so young, so susceptible to fantasy and suggestion. On one side: if it didn't happen, how could the children make it up? From the other: through listening to their parents, being pressured by interviewers.
Some of their evidence defied belief. The children disclosed bit by bit, prompted by their interviewers, in a process likened by the Crown prosecutor Brent Stanaway to peeling an onion. The child whose evidence formed the basis of one charge against creche workers Gay Davidson, Marie Keys and Jan Buckingham revealed progressively more bizarre events during his five interviews: children being put through a trapdoor into a maze, men with names such as Spike and Boulderhead, Ellis's mother giving the child a drug, and the "circle incident", where the women and other men stood, some playing guitars, while Keys and Davidson pretended to have sex. The children were made to kick each other, while the adults laughed and Ellis took photographs.
The child's mother spoke to him often about the abuse; his parents had separated, he had suffered various mental health problems and had been in therapy. The judge, discharging the women, found his evidence insufficient.
Other children's evidence was more convincing. One little girl was asked at the end of an interview whether there was something she hadn't wanted to tell the interviewer. Eyes down, she agreed there was. She had told of washing Ellis's penis in the bath and having her vagina washed by him, but these offences faded before the final embarrassment. He had pooed in the bath, she whispered.
Barry Tronson's house in
Ellis's partner Dave, long black earrings swinging from his lobes, called while the Listener was there. He was uncommunicative. Assuming I was from the local newspaper he pulled a massage advertisement from his wallet and asked me to check it out.
Tronson's main worry now was a
video, confiscated by the police. They had seized hundreds of videos from all
Earlier that week, Inspector Brian Pearce, in charge of the creche inquiry, had appeared on the Holmes programme decrying pornography, liberalism, compromise and double standards, and giving those searching for the fundamentalist connection their opportunity by stating his belief in "a God who will not be mocked".
As the storm broke around Pearce's head the following day, police revealed details of the seized videos, although they had only the most tenuous connection with the creche case. They showed, at least, said Detective Sergeant Bob Hardie, that activities such as pins through parts of the body, needles through penises, or urinating in mouths were part of the currency.
The most acceptable part of one such video showed a needle the size of a sack pin going through a penis. The rest was so stomach-churning I felt like the writer Hunter S Thompson when, after months of associating with the Hell's Angels, he was finally beaten up by them: "Exterminate the bastards!"
The case spawned others. Some children were undoubtedly abused away from their creche, probably in their homes, where most child abuse occurs. Abuse figures are controversial, but even settling for an average of eight percent of children in the community at large being abused, the 116 children interviewed by police should have produced, statistically, about nine cases of abuse. Police confirmed that one charge, against a child's relative, was pending and that others were likely.
Peter Ellis was assaulted in his home – hit around the' head with a piece of wood and kicked about the body by four men who later appeared in court. On unrelated occasions, Robbie Davidson, Gay Davidson's former husband, twice appeared in court, after incidents involving a parent.
Graffiti appeared around the city. Example: "These women are guilty – what about the children?"
Gay Davidson and Ellis were sent bullets with their names engraved on them. Davidson also got an anonymous, abusive telephone call. Police traced the call to a parent. They made him write a letter of apology to Davidson. The letter came in a Play for Life envelope: "Say No to War Toys."
The real victims here were the children. Whoever was responsible, their nightmares are real. Some children were still producing new revelations at the end of the trial. The complainant children were said to be suffering from night horrors, toileting difficulties, fears and anxieties.
Complainant parents were reluctant to discuss their problems. They were advised by police not to talk publicly about the case before Ellis’s appeal.
The parents had become close. The
mothers tended to be social workers or teachers. They networked a good deal.
Their opponents saw their closeness, and the similarities in their outlooks,
as a reason for their children's allegations. The woman who made the original
complaint is a counsellor who says she was a sex abuse victim herself. She
was a founder member of the Sexual Abuse Therapy and Rehabilitation Team
There are parents, though, who support Ellis and the creche workers – even parents of children who police believe were abused. "I don't believe it," said one mother, whose child gave evidence at the lower court hearing, but who decided to pull out before the High Court trial. If her child had been abused, she asked, how could she behave so normally? "They'd closed the creche and arrested the women and here I was a prosecution witness – I was angry and a little scared. I felt I was against these people I had no intention of being against and these bloody police had put me there. I don't question the intentions of the people from social welfare, but they've gone from the premise that they know better than anyone else and we should shut up and let them get on with it and I don't believe that – now their reputation is at stake and they have to stick with it come hell or high water."
Said Bob Hardie: "I feel sorry for her. Some day her child is going to come up and say, 'I've been abused and you didn't do anything about it.'" The mother was unrepentant. "I'll deal with that when it happens – f it happens."
In the language of this case, the mother was said to be "in denial". This is one of the cleft sticks in the debate. If you're not "in denial", you're supporting child sex abusers.
Mary and Malcolm Cox, two intelligent people (he an accountant, she a nurse) were also convinced their children had not been abused. Mary Cox had reservations about the parents' network and the interviewing techniques ("they involved some fairly dysfunctional families"), and neither believed the creche staff were guilty. "I'm not an activist," said Mary, "but that creche was 10 years of my children's life. I've got some very positive and strong feelings about it. I thought, I can't walk away from it."
Police will say, off the record, that they are satisfied with the outcome of the charges against the four women creche workers. All four were discharged. Yet this poses new questions. If the women were innocent, and knew nothing about the abuse, how could Ellis have got away with it? The prosecution presented evidence of opportunities, and the jury accepted that evidence.
Most of the offences were said to
have occurred in the creche toilet, where the door was usually open. There
were nine women workers at the creche, relieving teachers, parents constantly
(and randomly) visiting, students from the
This is the toughest question, and the answers vary. The original complainant parent theorised that Ellis could have been abusing the children in front of everyone's eyes, so smartly that no one noticed. Rosemary Smart's explanation was that no one at the creche was open to signs of abuse. The police reasoned that it was the culture at the creche, tolerant to the point of negligence.
The women remain unconvinced.
Marie Keys lives with her husband
Roger and two daughters in a neat little house in the modest suburbs of east
Women are more commonly involved in child sex abuse than is believed. A survey of Kia Marama sex offenders found that 67 percent had been abused themselves as children, 30 percent by women; typically a cousin or mother. If this is true, charges are seldom brought; there are only four women child sex offenders serving time at present.
Yet commonsense and judgment have to be put to one side to imagine Keys guilty of anything. The judicial system agreed.
Three of the four women creche workers who were taken to court have families of their own. Debbie Gillespie, the fourth, admitted to having both men and women partners. She now lives alone, in a house she is looking after, with one of Ellis's dogs (named Eadie after a detective on the case) for company.
Gay Davidson has two teenaged sons, one of whom could not cope with the allegations about her and moved away; the other, older son remained to support her. The very tall Jan Buckingham (nicknamed "Moose" by her family) has four children of her own and has fostered others.
None of them – nor, probably, any of the other workers at the civic creche – will ever work with children again: "We'd be sitting ducks," said Buckingham.
All their homes are modest; all are struggling to meet their share of their $100,000 legal bill after legal aid and costs have been deducted. They and other creche workers who lost their jobs when the Christchurch City Council closed the creche early last year – 13 in all – are claiming $2.8 million compensation from the council.
The creche is now being repainted and will re-open as a new, private childcare centre. But the old creche won't vanish so easily. Of all the questions raised by the case, one is insistent: beyond reasonable doubt?
The international debate on the
subject, however, had already reached
The children’s evidence in the Ellis trial was often bizarre. Asian men, a luxury hotel, a central city Masonic lodge building. Hangings, shootings, swordfighting. Needles in anuses and vaginas, but without any physical injury.
Experts say that the extremes can be ignored; that they are simply the children trying to explain, with their limited language and concepts, what happened to them. In this argument both sides have leions of authorities: check my authority, theirs is no good; no, theirs is no good.
“when I first heard of the interviews, heard some of the bizarre things . . . I found it hard to put it into reality, grasp hold of it,” said Bob Hardie. “It took months, long hours of work and a lot of soul-searching to satisfy myself of what the children were saying. It would never leave our minds – how could it happen, it couldn’t possibly have happened – but you can’t get away from it. You have to accept when you see the evidence that there were two common denominators: the children were sexually abused, and the creche was a venue. I’m absolutely convinced of that.”
cases overseas have focused on adults being sent to prison on the testimony
of very young children. To have absolute faith in the judicial process in