The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports Index

1993 June-Dec

North & South
September 1993, pp 54 - 70.

Beyond the Civic creche case
Cate Brett

On June 22, Justice Williamson sent Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis to jail for 10 years with some harsh words ringing in his ears: he told him he was a pervert; that he had no doubt the jury was correct in its verdict and that Ellis could have assisted the child victims of these crimes, and himself, if he had faced up to the truth about himself and sought help at an early stage.

That was two months ago at the end of the longest, most expensive and most documented child sex abuse case in New Zealand's legal history.

But the bizarre thing is the court case was nothing more than a sideshow: the real story rages on in the seamiest smoggy Christchurch suburbs where complainants and accused live, quite literally, cheek by jowl. 

The camps are bitterly and irrevocably divided; where once they were united by their politics, now they are divided by their children.


IT HAD BEEN A GOOD DAY: four weeks since Peter Ellis was sent to jail and finally a sense of normalcy was returning to the household. At school this afternoon the teacher had waylaid Anne to tell her that her seven-and-a-half-year-old son, Andy (not his real name), had been noticeably happier since the verdict.

Then, during dinner Andy had become morose, his favourite food prodded and pushed around the plate and his customary chatter stilled. A stomach ache? Sudden change in appetite?

"No. It's just this meat reminds me of Peter's penis."

Peter's penis. It might have been laughable if it wasn't coming from such a sad little face; if it wasn't coming from a boy on antidepressants; a boy who six weeks earlier had dressed himself up as a pirate, complete with sword and hat, to protect himself as he gave evidence in Ellis's High Court trial.

A boy who gave evidence of being forced to perform oral sex with other children, being forced to drink Ellis's urine out of a cup in the crθche toilets, of being made to line up in a room with other children, take his clothes off and lie on a bed while strange men touched his genitals.

I find myself looking at this small bright-eyed boy as if he were the survivor of some modern-day holocaust; how can this have happened to him under his loving parents' eyes and what can he say to me that will finally dispel the lingering doubts which remain after months of research?

When Justice Williamson confirmed the jury's verdict in Ellis's trial, he said, "Unlike almost all of those who have publicly feasted off this case by expressing their opinions, the jury actually saw and heard each of the children."

I had seen only some of the 13 child complainants (aged three and a half to nine) sitting framed by a video monitor as they were cross-examined by Ellis's defence counsel, Robert Harrison. I had watched the protracted evidential interviews where children spoke of Ellis putting his penis in their mouths, forcing them to masturbate him, defecating or urinating on their faces. I had sat for hours on end reading transcripts of these interviews and came away revolted by the halting revelations made by these children but also confused as to how anyone could distil the fact from the obvious fiction interwoven in these disclosures. How to account for the surprising lack of effect in some of the children as they recounted these horrors while simultaneously moulding playdough, humming, or playing with blocks.  How to explain the fact that these atrocities went on, from 1986 until November 1991, but nobody noticed.

And like Thomas, the doubting apostle, I had come now to put my hand in the wound so to speak; to talk with a mother whom I knew to have her head screwed on, a mother who wasn't talking satanic ritual abuse, a mother who had been good friends with one of the women accused, Debbie Gillespie; a mother who had none of the skeletons in her closet which some have pointed to as alternative explanations for the children's disturbed behaviour — things like opiate dependency, broken marriages, deaths, de factos, dodgy uncles or stepbrothers. This family doesn't even have a television set to corrupt their children's young imaginations.

Here is a mother who had everything to lose and nothing but heartache to gain from becoming caught up in the Civic inquiry.

She said I could talk to her son about what had happened and in an instant I knew what it meant when the expert child abuse interviewers refer to "distracting" and the difficulties avoiding the use of "leading questions".


HERE WE ARE IN THE HEART of middle-class Christchurch suburbia, a sun-filled lounge lined with book  shelves, memorabilia from world travels and educational toys, inflatable globes, for the children — in the midst of which Andy, a fragile-looking boy, holding his after school quota of animal biscuits in one hand and a Linus blanket in another.

Somehow we're supposed to steer the conversation child sex abuse.

"Was it difficult to talk to the judge?"

"No, he was quite friendly. It was only difficult the first time, I told.

"Once, Mr Harrison [defence counsel] asked me what Peter had done to me but actually he already knew because he had seen the video when I told Sue [Sue Sidey the specialist child interviewer]. So I told him he already knew what had had happened

"What do you think about Peter?"

I think he was being very stupid because he did mean things to us and he probably knew he'd go to jail."

At which point he leaps up and dashes from the room, yelling over his shoulder that he would like to "roll Peter flat, starve him out in a dungeon with no door and no window."

Later, I try again: "Why didn't you tell Mummy or Daddy about the mean things Peter did?" [A leading question.]

He walks to the window and puts his thumb in his mouth.

"Because it was too hard. It was scary."

Ellis had told Andy that he would turn his mother and father into gherkins and eat them if he ever told. Sound silly? Try it out on a four year-old who still believes in Father Christmas and the tooth fairy.

Earlier this afternoon his mother, a social worker, described her intense guilt at having failed to diagnose in her own son all the things she had been trained to spot in others.

It was, by now, a familiar story, told and retold during the 11 week deposition trial which preceded Ellis's case: parents who had jollied their children along as they expressed explicit dislike and in some cases real fear of Ellis; parents who had felt nothing but exasperation when their children suddenly lost control after moving down to the "big end of the creche" and would hold on (to the point where some, like Andy, developed impacted bowels) until they could go to the toilet at home, or would refuse to go at all unless accompanied by their mother or father; parents whose children seemed unnaturally fearful or obsessed with genitals; parents who raised concerns about random incidents involving Ellis and rough housing or teasing or inappropriate behaviour and assumed that something had been done to fix it.

And in one instance, a parent whose son, then aged four and a half actually told his mother on the way home from creche one day that "Peter had done poos and wees on the "children's faces" in the toilets. She told him not to be silly.


ANNE AND HER HUSBAND FELL into the category of parents had complained about Ellis: once because he terrified their son with his tickling games, and again when Ellis painted Andy's buttocks with flowers. At the time, Anne worried she would be considered prudish or reactionary for making a fuss.

But at the same time she often felt enormously grateful to Ellis because Andy lost bowel control once he moved down the "big end" and often Ellis was the only one prepared to clean him.

By the time the first allegation against Ellis surfaced in November 1991, Andy had been at school for nearly a year; he still had toileting problems and had been on "Sneaky Poos" programmes and received help from Child and Family Service.

Like all the parents with children who had attended the creche, Ann was given a list of open-ended questions to put to Andy; general questions about likes and dislikes and children and staff they might remember.

When Anne and her husband got round to the question about whether there was anyone Andy didn't like, the response was heart stopping.

The colour drained from his little face and he immediately leapt over the back of the couch and hid from view. Then a trembly voice spoke up with 'you mean Peter don't you'."

They left it there; he didn't want to talk about it and they were very conscious of the dangers of contamination.

Andy did not disclose sexual abuse during his first interview with Sue Sidey. He talked a lot about his fear of Ellis, about the "tickle bash up" games and the teasing and the stealing of food from his lunch box. But instantly after the interview his toileting problems stopped, just as if someone had thrown a switch.

Eventually Anne was told by another parent that her child had said Ellis had put his penis in Andy's mouth.

Questioned, an extraordinarily fearful Andy said yes this had happened.

From the time of this initial disclosure in March 1991 to the time of the court case, Anne says she and her husband would have had no more than six conversations with Andy about what had happened. Once they decided to go to court they became acutely aware of the dangers of contaminating their child's evidence.

But naturally enough, once their child had worked up the courage to unburden himself of these ghoulish memories, it was to his parents he turned.

Little were children like Andy to know that this was a mistake; what they said in the privacy and safety of their homes was worthless in court — no, worse than that, it raised the spectre of coaching or contamination.

It wasn't enough that these children turned their parents' guts with the fear in their eyes; they had to repeat the performance for a stranger in a soundproof room in front of a video camera before the allegations took on any value in court.

It was almost as if the only part of this ordeal that would ever receive credibility was the part that was played out in public.

While experts argued about interviewing techniques and whether leading questions were asked by the interviewers, the parents sat at home with six and seven-year-olds who were describing sexual practices that few of their parents had even heard of.

The jury found for Andy on one count but not on another; a fact which Anne finds oddly reassuring:

"At the end of the day I don't know what to make of it all. I believe my son has been abused — not because someone has told me this is the thing to do, but because I know him. I do think that some parents did question their children inappropriately — something that was fairly heavily scrutinised throughout depositions. And I think the jury only made those convictions when they were absolutely certain. Other charges, where there seemed to be quite a lot of evidence, didn't stick, and I feel quite reassured by that in a way.

"But as to what actually happened at that creche, I just don't know. What I would prefer to believe, but can't quite, is that Peter acted alone and somehow the other staff were just oblivious or saw his inappropriate behaviour with the children and just dismissed it — as we all did — for fear of being thought reactionary.

"My next scenario is that Peter had some sort of hold over the key members of the staff, an emotional hold based perhaps on things he knew about them personally, and that they knew about the offending but ignored it.

"And the worst scenario is that the women condoned the offending and that it was an organised and systematic form of abuse which involved people outside the creche."

And the reason she can't quite believe Ellis acted alone is that her child has told her quite explicitly that he told some of the women accused what was happening and they rescued him from some of the abuse.


ONE OF THE CRUELLEST IRONIES in this story is the blind faith parents like Anne placed in the Civic and its staff; this was the last place in the world they would suspect of sexual abuse. By the time Gaye Davidson joined the staff in 1984, the Civic, under former manager Dora Reinfeld, had become a showcase held up at Christchurch Teachers' Training College as a model centre.

Seven years later, in November 1991, the same month in which the first allegation against Ellis would surface, this view would be restated in a glowing report by the Education Review Office, praising the staff and parents for creating an "accepting environment where children's self-esteem and personal development is nurtured."

Like kindergartens and playcentres, independent creches are licensed and inspected by the Ministry of Education, but, unlike kindergartens, creches are able to cater for children under two and provide all-day care.

Parents placed their children's names on the Civic waiting list at birth in the hope there would be a vacancy by the time they were old enough to attend.

The fact that the Civic became so popular owed much to Reinfeld who had hauled the creche back from an anarchic brink where it had teetered in the early 80s as parents encouraged their children to "go bush" in an urban environment.

In a bizarre forerunner to the Ellis case, the Christchurch City Council, the creche's licensee, was asked in 1984 to help sort out a situation where the children appeared to be running the creche and staff were concerned about the amount of time children spent masturbating.

Reinfeld, a no-nonsense woman, was brought in as supervisor in 1983, with a mandate to sort the Civic out. She set about imposing a new structure on the creche. Children slept and ate at given times, washed their hands after painting and before food, sang songs and went on organised outings, listened to stories and played in sandpits. Notice boards remained a forum through which politically correct parents could keep up to date with the next protest, but there was a new emphasis on learning.

Ironically too, she was responsible for designing and instructing staff in what must have been one of the very first child sex abuse prevention programmes in day care. As part of this, any men working with children were to be chaperoned by another worker during nappy changing — for their own protection.

Ellis was employed as a reliever at the creche in August 1986 and Reinfeld moved on to take up a teaching post at Christchurch College of Education that December. She gave him his first warning before she went — for drinking.

She says if the guidelines, policies and administrative sys tems that were put in place during her time at the Civic had survived under Davidson, the abuse would not have happened.

As the 80s drew to a close, so the Civic's parents moved from experimentation and free love into jobs and mortgages; there would always remain a strong liberal core at the Civic but by the late 80s the influx of professional and middle-class families meant the creche began to reflect more conventional values. There remained a strong emphasis on gender equity and biculturalism but many of the parents were looking to the creche to provide their children with a politically correct "head start". Civic kids got a reputation among the city's primary schools as bright and well adjusted, eager to leam. By the early 90s a growing number were headed for private schools.

By 1989 the government's educational reforms meant early childhood centres wishing to continue to receive government subsidies had to adopt a charter stipulating the quality of care and education to be provided. The Civic's 1991 charter lists among its principles the goal of providing a "curriculum designed to provide the children with a balanced programme to facilitate their intellectual, physical, emotional, social and spiritual development."

It lists among its special features: "non-sexism, non-violent environment, taha Maori, use of surrounding environment".

The "surrounding environment" meant, first and foremost, the Botanical Gardens, Hagley Park and the museum. Even after the creche shifted from its original site in the Arts Centre in 1989 after the Dux de Lux restaurant coveted the site for its brew bar, the park and gardens remained within easy reach from the new creche in the old Christchurch Girls' High School in Cranmer Square.

Physically, the site in Cranmer Square was less than ideal, the "big end", where up to 30 preschoolers played, consisted of one large room — presumably an old classroom - with a cloakroom, kitchen cum staff area and toilet block off one end and a small office off the other. Adjoining the main room was a smaller, sunnier space for the under twos.

Those who argue nothing ever happened at the creche point to the physical layout of the rooms and say it would have been impossible for Ellis to have been secreted away in the toilet abusing children because there were too many people coming and going within cooee.

But Ellis himself conceded there were times when he locked himself away in the toilets for an illicit smoke and no one was any the wiser; certainly, standing in the middle of the large play area there is no way in the world anyone could know what was happening in the toilet at any given time. In court, Ellis's co- workers told the jury it just was not physically possible for Ellis to have committed the abuse; then Ellis came along and told them the very nature of the work meant there must have been opportunities.

The agreed staff ratios meant there should always be a staff member for every four toddlers (under two-year-olds) - one for every 10 preschoolers.

Although owned by the Christchurch City Council, the  creche was run by a management committee made up of parent representatives, the supervisor, staff representatives and two council representatives.

Before the Ellis investigation, there were 72 children enrolled at the Civic — some part time, some full time. It had made an average annual profit of $30,000 for the past three years.

By the time the Ministry of Education suspended the Civic licence and the doors were finally closed in September 1992, the roll had dropped to 55 and the Civic was heavily in the red.


ONE OF THE MOST DAMNING THINGS to emerge from the ashes of the Civic was a report which seemed to make fools of everyone who worked there — and most of the parents besides. It was commissioned by the council and researched and written by Rosemary Smart, a registered psychologist and director of Presbyterian Support Service's counselling services.

Smart began compiling the report in March 1992, after Ellis had been charged with the first of the 45 indecency charges he would eventually face and seven months before the four women creche workers would be arrested. She handed the confidential report to the council in July and a copy was passed immediately to the police. It would go a long way towards convincing investigating officers of the women's guilt.

Critics have pointed out that the report reads as if the abuse had happened and Ellis had been convicted; they are right. Although the word "alleged" crops up now and again, it is soon lost in a maze of severely incriminating circumstantial evidence.

Out of the mouths of every staff member came information that would shock most parents — even those closest and most forgiving of Ellis’s excesses — and would collectively compromise Ellis's co-workers.

As Smart put it: "On the one hand, all but one staff member were struggling to believe Ellis had abused anyone and frankly could not accept such abuse could have happened at the Creche and yet individually each one carried information about his behaviour that would send alarm bells screaming in the head of anyone with the slightest clue about child sex abuse."

Smart interviewed each staff member individually and then summarised their comments according to the six headings experts in sex abuse treatment use to help identify a potential abuser: signs of emotional problems, substance abuse, criminal behaviour, sexual difficulties, poor judgement and insensitivity and punitiveness towards children.

On the basis of information freely volunteered by the staff, Ellis displayed all these attributes.

Their individual comments included:

I was concerned for the children he baby-sat for, I thought he was an alcoholic.

He brought a child round to my house one weekend when he had had a few.

He talked about being sexually abused as a child and that he liked it. It was fine because it was what he wanted.

He was abused by his uncle. He said it was ok because he knew what he was doing. He was eight at the time.

He said girls of 12 really wanted it and knew what they were doing.

I thought he was perverted. He told me explicit details of the men and women he slept with. He like to flaunt his sex life.

He told one staff member a certain child had "a nice arse", another had "nice tits" and another had a "nice body". He made these statements within the hearing of the children.

He talked an unusual amount about the size of the boys' penises.

Games would start being fun but often it seemed he didn't know when to stop.

There was an incident in the last six months when he pulled the girls' skirts down or the boys' pants down as they ran through the door. He was spoken to by a staff member.

Smart recorded that one staff member said she couldn't recall seeing any child upset or anything that gave her concern about Ellis, but then went on to say that one child had developed a vaginal infection which made urinating painful one weekend after Ellis had been baby-sitting for her, and when the child turned up at creche he had "been particularly nasty and told her several times in a nasty voice that she had 'wees disease'".

Staff said it was common for children not to like Ellis, but put it down to him being male and different. Some kids loved him. One child refused to be toileted by him.

Although the authors of these comments were not identified in Smart's report, she confirmed that they originated from all staff — not one or two. In her report she concluded that Ellis's likable personality, his bisexuality, his exhibitionism and his creativity with the children all helped build up a base of tolerance and support among staff.

"Because he behaved and spoke somewhat outrageously and possibly because he was bisexual, he was seen as different. Therefore for both staff and parents the usual boundaries did not seem to apply."

And while she was strongly critical of the staff for their almost total lack of training in sexual abuse prevention and detection. Smart did not really apportion blame for what had happened, noting instead that overseas studies of sex abuse in day care had shown that traditional indicators of quality in day care are not also indicators of low risk of sexual abuse.

She did, however, conclude that while the Civic had an excellent reputation in the past, "over the last few years it has changed from a relaxed and informal atmosphere to a careless milieu."


TRACEY O'CONNOR, A 22-YEAR-OLD kindergarten teacher who joined the creche staff eight months before Ellis's suspension, has a couple of interesting things to say about Ellis and the Civic. At depositions she was staunch in her support of Gaye Davidson and her professionalism and told the court it was not possible for Debbie Gillespie and Ellis to have had sex in the toilets (one of the two charges Gillespie faced).

She still thinks that, but since Ellis's conviction she has offered a few gems of information about what it was like to work at the Civic in its twilight days and the enigma that was Ellis.

O'Connor is different from the rest of the Civic staff: more ordinary, certainly more naive. Ellis sniffed that out in a jiffy and spent morning tea breaks spoon-feeding her outrageous information about his personal life and sexual preferences. She was one of the staff who told Smart about his comments about being abused as a child (something he later denied in a 20/20 television interview) and liking it, although other staff, including Davidson and Jan Buckingham, already knew this. (Whether they believed it is another question).

O'Connor knows Ellis was trying to wind her up, but there was a darker side to it all as well. Fresh from training college she saw things that made her skin crawl: pillow fights that became so vicious that children were left knocked down and crying, emotional manipulation of children, name calling, and the endless sexualised banter directed at adults but all within hearing of the children.

Under Reinfeld, staff used to complain privately about how little time there was for interaction between fellow workers; adults were there for the children, not to socialise. But that policy seemed to have been reversed by the time O'Connor arrived.

"The staff's personal lives, their problems, sexual practices and partners were all up for discussion.

"Debbie was having a relationship with a man and then with a relieving staff member (a woman who would later give evidence for the prosecution); Gaye had a nice boyfriend and also an ex-husband who seemed to spend more time at the creche than her boyfriend; and then Jan, well, when her marriage broke up her ex- husband went to flat temporarily with Peter."

O'Connor was having her own personal problems and in hindsight agrees that staff relations had begun to dominate the staff/child relationships.

"Yes, I think so. Like for me, I was going to work for the staff and not the kids. The attraction of going to the creche was to be with adults who understood. Staff relationships were very important but I think we took it to an extreme."

A disarmingly honest admission which seems to point to the heart of what went wrong at the Civic: a bunch of emotionally needy adults who became increasingly dependent on one another and desensitised to what was happening around them.

Added to which there was Ellis, the chameleon.

"You see, this man who has been sentenced on 16 counts of child abuse is the same man who went out one lunch hour after my budgie died and presented me with a brown paper bag.

"Inside was a new budgie."


ELLIS ARRIVED AT THE civic in September 1986 as a result of an 80 hour community service sentence for benefit fraud. He had no training in child care but seemed to have a natural affinity with children — that ability, which many adults lose, to engross himself in a children's fantasy world.

Ironically, by the time he was dismissed he was one of the most highly qualified workers at the Civic — more qualified, technically, than his supervisor, Gaye Davidson. Ellis's training with the New Zealand Child Care Association gave him the maximum 120 points, deemed to give him equivalency with the new breed of early childhood education workers who have three full years kindergarten training — like O'Connor.

Davidson has a certificate in child care obtained through the Christchurch Polytech which gave her 100 points. She was the longest-serving staff member. Her co-accused, Jan Buckingham and Marie Keys, both aged 44, had both been at the creche for six years and were qualified primary school teachers — as was Debbie Gillespie who joined the staff in 1988 after five years' teaching at Aranui Primary School.

They had worked together for a long time and knew a great deal about each other, but they are not as homogeneous a group as they would later appear. They socialised together six times a year — no, perhaps more often than that in the last year. Christmas parties, pot luck teas and birthdays, that sort of thing.

Davidson is divorced with two teenage sons; Keys, a member of the Avonside Girls' High board of trustees, is married with two daughters; Buckingham has four children of her own and has fostered others, and Gillespie who describes herself as a lesbian (but was in a heterosexual relationship at the time the charges against her were dropped) is childless.

Buckingham was perhaps the closest to Ellis; Davidson the most distant.    

Initially they had been asked to get their heads around the fact that Ellis, a co-worker and a friend, had, under their very noses, systematically abused upwards of 80 during his six years at the creche. Then, on October 1 at 8.30am, as police officers arrived simultaneously at their addresses, they were asked to believe that they had assisted him.

In an instant the everyday chaos of teenagers breakfasting and making school lunches was transformed into the totally foreign and sinister chaos of police officers overturning beds and gathering evidence - knocking walls to see if a baby's dead body could have been disposed of in the cavity (Jan Buckingham says she was told this by one searching police officer), seizing phone lists, books on the Middle Ages, children's charm bracelets, soft toys, guitars and photographs, videos and letters. 

In order to lift suspicion from other staff the four decided not to apply for name suppression and as a result quickly found themselves household names throughout New Zealand. The nightmare which would run for six months had begun. From now until forever the simplest things in life were to become a source of trauma.

Gillespie describes how the allegations have tainted even the best friendships with the sourness of distrust: "I was sitting at a good friend's table with my arms around her four- year-old when I saw her mother glance down to the child's lap where my hands lay. Immediately I froze. What was she thinking?"

On television they were to make an incongruous and awkward foursome: the youthful Gillespie in her flowing dresses, Davidson with her uncompromising streaked hair and sharp features, Buckingham towering in the background with her solid features and matronly frame, and petite Keys, looking as reassuringly conservative and kindly as parents remembered her.

Over the 11 -week deposition hearing they sat, looking alternatively dazed, bored and amused, as the whole sordid tale spilt out, overwhelming everyone with the sheer volume of evidence the 70-odd prosecution witnesses, the 40 hours of taped children's evidence, the interminable examination and cross-exanimation by the women's counsel, Gerald Nation, Ellis's counsel, Robert Harrison, and the prosecution counsel, Chris Lange and Brent Stanaway — all conducted at a stupefyingly slow pace with frequent stops to allow the court stenographer to catch each word.

The number of children involved varies depending on who you're talking to, but the police version goes like this: 116 children interviewed, somewhere between 60 and 80 disclosed some form of abuse by Ellis - either physical or sexual; 33 disclosed abuse clearly enough to go to court; 20 of those were actually prepared to go through court; one was thrown out at depositions, two more withdrew (which meant Gillespie was acquitted) and the Crown then hand-picked which of the remaining complainants were strong enough to go through to the High Court trial. The 13 who gave evidence in court were aged three and a half to nine.

The child's ability to withstand cross-examination played a key part in this selection process, together with the strength of the initial evidential interview.

During Ellis's trial, two of the children were dismissed essentially because they could not deliver under examination, which left Ellis facing 25 charges from 11 complainants, and he was found guilty "beyond reasonable doubt" on 16 charges relating to seven of the children.

Another man, the relative of a child, has also been charged with abusing one of the complainants, but he was the only other offender not connected with the Civic positively identified by a child.


WHAT THE CHILDREN SAID takes your breath away; much of it seems to have nothing at all to do with sex and everything in the world to do with perversion and power play. Trying to untangle the facts is a nightmare for adults; there were few physical clues beyond two medical reports, one consistent with anal penetration and one consistent with vaginal rupture. The strongest indicators were behavioural - that multifarious list which seems to envelop everything a normal child passes through before heading off to primary school: nightmares, regression, fear of intruders, toileting problems, phobias about clothing.

And then there was what the children said: it included Ellis fondling and poking at vaginas and anuses, urinating into children's mouths, defecating on them, bathing with them and forcing them to masturbate him, putting needles, sticks and "little burning papers" up their bottoms, hanging them in cages, locking them down trap doors, forcing them to perform oral sex on one another and hit each other.

A number of the children, including two who were key complainants in the High Court trial and for whom the jury brought in guilty verdicts, went further, describing incidents outside the crθche involving numerous other perpetrators. Two independently — and without parental note-swapping - named some of these characters as Boulderhead, Spikehead and Yuckhead.

One of these children, a seven-year-old boy, specifically identified Keys, Buckingham and Davidson as being present during the so-called "circle incident", where children had been forced to strip naked and dance about and kick each other in the genitals. A man had inserted a needle in the child's penis and Marie and Gaye had "pretended to sex" in the middle of the circle.

On April 6, seven months after their arrest. Justice Williamson acquitted the three women on their charge of being party to an indecent assault on a child. He gave three reasons: the evidence was not strong enough - the other two children mentioned by the complainant as being present did not identify the women, and the evidential interview in which the women were named was the fourth or fifth, during which time the child had been in therapy and had come under enormous pressure from his mother to disclose.

The Crown's expert witness, child psychologist Karen Zelas, conceded that "nothing the boy had so far said seemed to satisfy his parents" but that the interviewers were aware of the extreme pressure he was under at home and had proceeded with caution. She was satisfied his behaviour and disclosures were consistent with abuse.

Conversely, the Australian psychologist Keith Le Page, who gave evidence for Ellis and the women accused, concluded that this child now genuinely believed and acted as if he had been abused because "a possibly abused child had been treated as an actually abused child."

The judge read the voluminous affidavits, supported by the very latest selection of research on when a child can and can't be relied upon as a witness in child sex abuse, said it was all very interesting but wasn't convinced either way:

"Symptoms can be explained, it is said, on the one hand, by reference to this particular small child having been sexually abused in most strange and unusual circumstances and then gradually revealing these experiences as his memories surface or as he understands what has happened.

"On the other hand it is said they can be explained as having been produced by personal pressures, stimuli from other sources such as children's books and television programmes, from over-anxious parents, from persistent suggestive and direct questioning, or from therapy.

"An abused child of this age can be expected to have problems. A manipulated or pressured child could also be expected to have problems."

In the end. Justice Williamson seemed to wriggle out of this quandary by loading the scales with two other technical reasons for discharging the women: the likelihood of prejudice as a result of Ellis's trial and the unfairness of a protracted delay before the trial, given that he had already granted severance, meaning Ellis would be tried separately from the women.

So they walked from the court, their lives in tatters but technically innocent. And the real battle for the nation's hearts and minds began. At the time, nobody except the journalists and the defendants knew why they had been acquitted, but the clear implication was, if the evidence against the women wasn't to be relied upon, then why buy any of it?

Conversely, the families of the complainants and their supporters argued from the opposite direction: Ellis was guilty and so his co-workers were at the very least guilty of negligence.

What happened in court was only a shadow of what the police actually believed had taken place and just a fraction of what the children had disclosed to their parents.


THERE ISN'T ANY POINT IN ASKING Gaye Davidson why she didn't twig to what was going on in her creche — the Christchurch City Council's model child care centre. There isn't any point in asking her whether she feels negligent as a manager, whether she, as a mother, feels anguished for the 80 children who were allegedly abused during the nine years at the Civic.

No point, because she doesn't believe it happened.

For me as a journalist this was one of the most mind-bending aspects of the case: to move each day from one middle-class living room to the next, from one intelligent and articulate character to another, each holding an utterly impregnable and opposing explanation as to what had happened.

It seemed there were enough facts to fit everybody's theory; and those which contradicted your beliefs you simply discarded or rearranged another way.

But putting aside the question of whether or not Ellis is guilty, there remain some very ugly facts which Davidson must surely face — facts which seem to indicate quite clearly that, one, things were out of hand at the Civic, and two, Ellis should not have been there.

Much of the evidence for this is contained in the Smart report which Davidson has now read. Weren't the comments her own staff had made about Ellis damning in the extreme?

"Yes, it does look damning and horrific. Even though these incidents were spread over six years you could still look at it like that, but those incidents never seemed as horrific or placing a child at risk, or suggestive of sexual abuse.

"It sounds more horrific — well it sounds bloody horrific — because of what Peter's accused of hand in hand with the fact that he worked with children. But if you want to take it out of the context of child care, a lot of that sexual talk goes on in offices, in respectable firms and factories."

And in any case, Davidson says she wasn't aware of much of it because it was part of Ellis's morning tea routine in the staff room and she wasn't present.

So she wasn't aware he spoke of being sexually abused and liking it?

"Yes, I was aware of that. I've talked to Peter's mother about that and she swears he has never been sexually abused — to my mind it was another example of Peter trying to provoke people and get a rise.

"It was just his sense of humour — Peter knew I hated cardboard boxes and sometimes I'd go out to my car and find it crammed full of them... it was his way of having fun."

Davidson argues that much of what Ellis said was fabricated to shock, and that anyway it was all at an adult level and no matter what he did in his private life, this didn't disqualify him as a person who could work well with children.

That seems patently untrue, but putting sex aside for a moment, some of the most damning comments about Ellis related not to his remarks about children's bodies but about what he did: his drinking, his roughness, his ability to be downright mean.

Davidson admits there were a number of occasions when she had to take action — not just pull him up but formally complain; there was the time she sent him to the council's recreation manager, Alistair Graham, after she caught him drinking in his lunch hour; and the time before that when some parents went to the council with concerns about lewd and suggestive comments he had made about creche staff during a social function; and then in 1989 she went to Alistair Graham again after an incident where Ellis had been in a foul mood and was taking it out on a child.

That resulted in a formal warning from the council with references to Ellis's use of "blatant personal threats, frightening children and using excessive force".

Finally, a month before Ellis was suspended, Davidson looked out of her office to see children clamouring around Ellis as he hung them by their clothing from the crθche's picket fence. "The children were all calling out for their turn, but I moved in immediately because it was clear somebody could have been hurt."

So at the end of the day does she still believe her management of the situation was adequate, or that Ellis should have been employed?

"Looking at the Smart report it is easy to say things could have been different; it could have been tighter, there could have been more reports, tighter complaints procedures and closer liaison between management and the council.

"But it wouldn't have been what the Civic was and it wouldn't have been as the parents wanted it. And even if it had been, as Rosemary Smart herself points out, it wouldn't necessarily have prevented abuse."


DAVIDSON'S DISBELIEF AT the charges brought against Ellis relates not only to her own experience but also to the rich undergrowth of rumour and wild speculation that became part of the mythology surrounding the case.

At times the credibility of the entire case seemed to be threatened by a small group of vocal parents who seemed determined to implicate everyone who had crossed the creche's threshold. The theories, fed by some of the children's references to being placed in coffins and the killing of animals, grew to encompass satanic ritual abuse, the making of child pornography and the involvement of Freemasons and Japanese sex tours.

Similarly, the knowledge that some parents were meeting in support groups and that others had been given lists of the things children had said Ellis had done, on the surface appeared to be powerful evidence of contamination.

Certainly there was clear evidence that the original complainant, whose child opened the flood gates in November 1991 by telling his mother he "didn't like Peter's black penis", had taken it upon herself to co-ordinate parents with concerns about their child and possible abuse.

The fact she herself had spent much of her adult life in the sex abuse counselling area and was a founder member of a sexual abuse therapy organisation, START, and the fact her son would not disclose abuse during an evidential interview also added grist to the mill.

But all this was examined in detail during both the depositions and subsequent High Court trial; the Crown never claimed satanic ritual abuse played any part in what had happened and both Judge Andersen, in the depositions hearings, and Justice Williamson, during Ellis's trial, were satisfied that while some inappropriate questioning of children had occurred, it did not constitute the gross contamination claimed by the defence.


FOR PARENTS READING THE DAILY newspaper reports of what children alleged Ellis had done, one of the hardest things to come to grips with was where the fantasy stopped and the facts began. Surely nobody really believed that Ellis pulled off a young boy's penis and tummy button with a pair of pliers, or that he had killed little boys with axes and squashed children in doorways until they vomited?                     

Those things demonstrably did not happen, so how can anyone know what did?

In court the Crown contended that Ellis interwove fantasy tricks and theatrics into the abuse so children would naturally recall the two together; certainly it was clear — and compelling —- that many of the child complainants had enjoyed aspects of their games with Ellis.

And it also became clear that some of the more bizarre incidents described by the children were not so bizarre after all: "golden showers", where adults urinate over each other, needles and sticks inserted in anuses, penises and vaginas, turned out to be for real — all practices Ellis himself claimed to staff and friends either to have taken part in or to have seen.


WHEN CHIEF INSPECTOR Brian Pearce, the man with overall responsibility for the Civic case, looked Paul Holmes in the eye on television on June 14 and told him that society was finally reaping the fruits of its liberalism and that we had all mocked Patricia Bartlett, John Banks and God for too long, he nearly caused a riot.

Here at last was proof of the police bias alleged by those lobbying for an inquiry into the Civic case: a Salvation Army man, who thinks homosexuality is evil and pornography a drug, is let loose on a case where two of the accused are bisexual and all are left of centre.

But like most of the conspiracy theories that have grown up around the case, it doesn't quite fit. Pearce says he wasn't talking about main line erotica but rather some of the 2000 videos - mostly unclassified — that were seized from five different addresses during the course of the inquiry, some of which dealt  expressly with the sexual practices described by the children: needles inserted in penises and vaginas, golden showers, pliers applied to genitals and breasts.

"When I was speaking to Holmes I was aware of the specific allegations some of the children had made in their interviews and I felt there was undeniable evidence these children had either seen some of this  pornography themselves or they had been subjected to the activities of people who fed on this stuff. There could be no other explanation."

Evil is not a fashionable concept nowadays, but when you see this material it seems to be the only apt description, both of what is happening to the shorn female torsos on the screen and the type of people who find some pleasure watching these videos. They make bondage and discipline sessions look like party games.

Graeme Rowe, a Christchurch book shop proprietor who has been charged with 276 counts of possessing indecent videos for hire (turned up during Civic inquiries but not directly related to the case), told the police it was difficult to keep pace with the demand for this sexual torture material.

His customer records encompass people from all walks of life, including a couple of school caretakers.


THE FACT THAT THIS PORNOGRAPHIC material is freely available in Christchurch and seems strongly to corroborate the children's evidence was a point well worth making, but the police couldn't prove any one of the accused had watched it.

The closest they got was Barry Tronson, Ellis's one-time lover and the man who owned the Hereford Street house where police believed some of the children had been abused. The police seized a video from Tronson, which depicted, among other things, a nail being forced through a victim's penis.

Another self-confessed pornography dealer, David Pascoe, turned out to be a former lover and continuing friend of a mother whose child was at the Civic. The mother and her partner have both been staunch supporters of Gaye Davidson. The police assumed they were close friends.

But a little digging discovers they are not close friends at all: which is a good example of how careless the police could be when piecing together a profile of the women as sex offenders; and how dangerous it could be to take everything you were told at face value.

As one of the journalists permitted to trot along behind the investigators, it was impossible at times for me to escape the conclusion that the police were deliberately feeding evidence to incriminate the women - evidence which never came near the court because it was founded more on conjecture, prejudice and speculation than on fact.

Christchurch is a small place, and those who have been actively involved in its left-wing politics are readily identified and can frequently be found in the same places - including student flats.

Exploring the myriad links which existed between crθche staff, past and present, and the various accused, the police hit upon an address in Avonside Drive, where no less than seven Civic creche workers had been associated.

The pivotal figure was one Michael Howard, a former Civic worker, radical and close friend of Gaye Davidson's former husband, Robbie. Howard had strong ideas about gender-free child raising and was an influential figure politically but committed suicide in 1984.

The suggestion seemed to be that this shadowy figure of the left, who shot himself and whose mother had also worked at the creche, might have been a Peter Ellis, Mark 1. There wasn't a skerrick of evidence to support this theory and it never went further than journalists' eager ears.

And while it might all seem slightly sinister - and suggestive of prejudice - all this sifting of connections and scrutinising of lovers was no more nor less than the police doing what they do best: piecing together the social fabric of an alleged crime, trying to find a motive, a rationale, just as they have done thousands of times before.

And at the end of the day very little of this information ever made it into the courtroom because the rules by which that forum operates are very different from the instinctive, streetwise and, no doubt, highly prejudiced rules governing police investigations.


IN THE END, WHAT THE POLICE DID or did not find mattered very little. What mattered was the credibility of the 13 children in the witness box and how the jury viewed their evidence.

Ellis's six-week trial was in "some ways an anticlimax after the protracted depositions trial; most of the blood and gore (quite literally) had been expunged as the Crown prosecutors tried to present only the most straightforward and easily comprehended charges; sexual violation counts were changed to indecent assault because of the difficulties of proving penetration.

The nine women and three men who made up the jury sat looking every bit as ordinary as they were: the foreman, an Anglican minister, leading a team including housewives and a plumber. And when all the experts had packed up their bags and left the courtroom, this group remained to sift and weigh the evidence.

After deliberating for 24 hours they returned guilty verdicts on 16 of the 25 counts; they accepted as proved beyond reasonable doubt the fact that Ellis had not only sexually abused seven of the complainants but also that he had done so in the presence of others, at places outside the creche, and that he had provided children for abuse by others.


IN THE HEAT WHICH FOLLOWED this verdict few people noticed exactly what that meant. It meant that maybe the mothers who were talking about organised abuse involving multiple abusers weren't so far off the wall after all.

It meant that there must be other people in Christchurch outside the creche who participated in the abuse of children from the Civic. It meant that Ellis may only have been a bit player in something much larger.

The police investigators first became aware that children were naming outsiders as early as March 1992. But at that point they were concentrating on Ellis. Detective Sergeant Colin Eade, the officer from the child abuse team responsible for working with the children going to court, views this as a major error:

"I would say that was where I made my biggest mistake in the inquiry. It wasn't that I didn't believe what the child was saying — her disclosure was perfectly clear — it was more that it moved things into an area beyond the norm."

Eade's team-mate and the detective in charge of the inquiry Bob Hardie, says by the time they began chasing the various ambiguous leads into other offenders they were running out of time and resources.

Much of the children's evidence suggested possible areas of inquiry but was never sufficiently concrete to make an  evidential link; the children spoke of men called "Spikehead'and "Boulderhead" and the police found connections between Ellis and some "boot boys"; Ellis also had associates flatting at the back of the Masonic Lodge building at some point — perhaps that's where the Freemason connection had originated?

Similarly the police pornography raids were an attempt to locate any child pornography because some of the children had talked of adults using videos and cameras.

The discovery of old laundry chutes and hidden cavities in Tronson's house in Hereford Street where Ellis once flatted seemed to fit in with one child's description of being placed down trap doors and in tunnels.                      |

But in the end nothing concrete. Nothing that could identify anyone to the standards required in court.

So there the matter rests, unless, as Hardie puts it, "Ellis ever rolls over."


IT'S A MOST UNSATISFACTORY ending to a most extraordinary story. 

A story full of delicious ironies for anyone sufficiently distanced to enjoy them: like the fact that big burly police officers like Eade and Hardie who escorted the Springboks around the country in 1981 were now socialising with the protestors and receiving fan mail from the city's left-wing offspring.

And the fact that the so-called feminist-inspired sexual abuse industry ended up turning on its own, accusing four women of liberal views and, in one case, lesbian tendencies.

As a journalist it was an immensely frustrating story as the city's left wing divided into two intractable camps. People would introduce themselves to me, po-faced, as a "believing mother" or a "believing granny", others as a "supporter of the women". Belief or disbelief replaced the usual political handles which facilitated left-wing discourse, and with true religious zeal both camps spat out anyone who was "lukewarm".

Over the months I gathered hundreds of pieces of information  which seemed capable of fitting into any number of opposing  theories: the networking that had undeniably taken place among some parents, the inappropriate questioning of children, the fact that everyone involved in the investigation seemed to assume Ellis's guilt long before he came to court; the conviction of some parents that their children had been ritualistically abused; the fact that now therapists were moving on to the next frontier of looking for women who sexually abuse children.

The fact that I had sat with intelligent and caring parents whose children had been dragged into the investigation, not because they showed any signs of being sexually abused and not because they said they had been abused, but because someone else's child had alleged they had been abused.

These parents, like Mary and Malcolm Cox, marvelled at the arrogance and intransigence of social workers who insisted they were "in denial" just because they didn't think their daughter had been abused. The circular thinking of the experts made them tear their hair; it seemed "no" was never allowed to mean "no", but rather "maybe, but I'm too scared to tell".

Time and time again I wanted to put these families of believers and disbelievers together in a room and ask them to square their stories with each other; but it was too late for that, the antagonism of these people who used to be friends is almost palpable.

For me, the touchstone had to be the children. Again and again I went back to the beginning, to the mothers and fathers whom I knew to be well balanced, and asked if they would really have invented all this.

I went back to the couple who had shifted out of Christchurch a year before the Civic inquiry and who had no possible way of knowing what other children were saying about Ellis. A couple whose six-year-old daughter spontaneously disclosed sexual abuse, including the more bizarre allegations concerning sticks up bottoms, without having had any contact with other complainants. A couple who never used leading questions, a couple who didn't want to hear, let alone believe, what their daughter was telling them.


AND I WENT BACK TO DAVIDSON, a month after Ellis was sent to jail, and asked her how she could remain so implacable, so sure nothing had happened, when faced with these parents she once knew as friends.

Forget, for a moment, the parents she believes have been manipulated by interviewers, social workers and a few crazed women obsessed with sexual abuse; does she not concede that among those 116 families there are some with their heads screwed on?

"Yes. I have to say I definitely accept that there are parents involved who don't fit into the categories of people who would allow themselves to be wound up by therapists and counsellors.

"I can't explain it. At times it's like a slap in the face and I think, yes, there is a seed of doubt in my mind.

"And if someone gave me a bit of concrete evidence I would stand up and walk away from Peter. But I've seen the evidence that put me down and it's the same evidence that put him down, and it's wrong."

In this statement Davidson is clearly wrong. The evidence that "put Ellis down" came from 13 witnesses in court, and many more beyond that. The allegations against her came from just one child.

PRIVATELY, I KNOW, some police are not convinced the right women went to court.

In the course of their interviews the children named in court five other creche staff, a Jack, Robert, Carl, Rodger, Joseph, Andrew, Boulderhead, Spikehead, Stupidhead, Yuckhead, and a group of Asian men.

The women were arrested because they were clearly identified as participants in abuse by one child; but the evidence was not strong enough to warrant a trial -just the destruction of their lives.

Although the child whose evidence had led to the women's arrest went on to become a compelling witness during Ellis's trial, the jury dismissed the one charge involving the "circle" incident but returned guilty verdict on three other counts.

The fact nobody else stood trial was partly due to the fact that identification was not strong enough and partly because, by the Crown's own contention, young children are less reliable when it comes to recalling accurately peripheral people and events— like who else was there and what else was happening.

Certainly other children spoke about other creche staff, both in the privacy of their homes and during interviews, but it was never very clear whether the children saw the women as rescuers and moderators of the abuse or as passive bystanders.

Regardless, they are all tarred to some extent by association. The 13 creche staff are now suing the Christchurch City Council for $2.8 million in compensation for alleged wrongful dismissal.

And that may be just the beginning: some parents are talking of suing the council for negligence as the creche's licensee; others are demanding their creche fees back, claiming they were not receiving the service they believed.

The case has already cost the council over $200,ooo in redundancy pay; salary and car for a social worker it hired to support the families of abused children; facilitators to run  support groups for the approximately 60 families requiring them, and meetings for fathers and mothers and extended families of abused children, not to mention loss of revenue from the creche.

The Accident Compensation Corporation assisted with the counselling costs of some children but would not disclose how many claims it had received or how much it had paid out in connection with the Ellis case.

But the true cost can never be counted in dollars. How do you measure the pain of a child or the loss of his or her innocence?

And as a society, how do we measure the damage this case has done to the everyday interchange between adult and child? — the rigid codes which now instruct teachers never to  interview any child alone and kindergarten teachers always to chaperone one another when toileting a child; and therapists who now believe women may be the next breed of sex offenders.

In April this year the Ministry of Education published a Guideline For The Prevention Of Child Abuse for use in early childhood centres; the 1990 regulations already required managers to have sex abuse prevention and detection policies in place, but the Civic case made managers very anxious not just to be safe but to be seen to be safe. Hence now there must be mandatory telephone calls to parents if their child's clothing needs changing and parental consent forms which must be signed before a child goes for a walk around the block.

Similarly, in June the office of the commissioner for children issued every primary school in the country with a document called Protecting Children From Abuse, which included a warning against transporting a child alone in a car or interviewing them alone in an office — all this despite the fact that even the most extravagant statistics suggest that a young child is at a significantly greater risk of being sexually abused in their own home than at a daycare centre. (There are no New Zealand statistics, but American research suggests 5.5 children per 10,000 enrolled in daycare are sexually abused, compared with 8.9 per 10,000 under the age of six who are sexually abused at home.)

Quite clearly, these new practices have as much to do with fearful adults protecting themselves from false allegations as they have to do with protecting children from abuse. That's the sad epitaph of this tale.


Getting The Evidence

FOR A BRIEF MOMENT it looks as if Justice Williamson has gone completely gaga; he whips his wig off and looks to be sharing a private joke with someone hidden behind the High Court bench; "If I said I was wearing a green wig right now would that be true or a lie?"

The jury watches one of two large television screens to see how the seven- year old girl sitting in front of a video camera in the room next door will respond to the judge's avuncular tomfoolery.

She gives a nervous giggle and tells Williamson he would be "lying of course".

Of course.

But demonstrating an understanding between truth and lies and extracting a promise to tell the truth from the 13 children giving evidence in the Ellis trial was the easy part; assessing the reliability of evidential interviews the children had recorded up to a year earlier and then testing their credibility under live cross-examination was far more difficult.

And if there is a feeling abroad that justice, if done at all, has certainly not been seen to be done, it is due in no small measure to the fact that the evidence in chief from these children was given in closed court. It was heard, verbatim, only by the judge, jury, journalists (the few who remained) and the accused.

Since the Evidence Amendment Act became law in 1985, the courts have not required any corroboration of children's evidence; just as a rape victim's word is all that is needed to secure a conviction, so too a child's word is all that is needed in sex abuse trials.


In 1991 there were 441 child abuse convictions involving children under 12 — but nearly twice that number of complaints: a fact which some say points to the difficulties of getting a conviction on the evidence of young children. "Beyond reasonable doubt" is a tall yard stick for children who still believe in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas.

A yard stick which many feel simply wasn't met in the Ellis case.

But the growing distrust in the processes used to obtain evidence from young suspected abuse victims did not spring fresh from the Civic case; it is part of a much broader disquiet which first stirred in Christchurch during 1988 when a Children and Young Persons Court judge raised serious concerns about the reliability of evidence obtained by untrained therapists working at Christchurch Hospital's Ward 24.

The Spence family became a victim of these untrained therapists when their six-year-old daughter who suffered a rare brain disease was diagnosed as sexually abused. The judge, although uncertain about whether or not abuse had occurred, was emphatic in his rejection of the methods used to obtain evidence from the child. A second case, involving Ward 24 and allegations of neglect and sexual abuse of a six-year-old boy by his father was thrown out of court for the same reasons.

The Spence/Ward 24 incident was highlighted on Frontline, became a landmark case and gave credibility to the increasingly vocal sector who believed sexual abuse was becoming an industry driven by poorly trained and politically motivated feminists. The 1987 Cleveland case in England, where social workers removed 197 children from their homes in six weeks on the basis of a false physical sexual abuse diagnostic technique, was a stunning example of the gross injustices that were occurring "in the interests of children".

The police and Department of Social Welfare were not blind to all this; one of the strongest critics of the status quo came from the department's own regional psychologist John Watson. He told his superiors there was no point in encouraging children to speak up about sexual abuse if the police and social workers did not have the expertise to obtain evidence acceptable to the courts.

John Watson now oversees the specialist evidential interviewing unit which was set up under his direction as a joint DSW and police venture in the aftermath of the Ward 24 case. By 1989 the unit was operating with the latest in audio and video recording equipment but was short on experienced staff.

He recruited a young psychologist, with an MA Honours degree and a passion for cognitive psychology and rock climbing. Her name is Sue Sidey and she was to become a pivotal, if unassuming, figure in the Civic inquiry.


SUE SIDEY KNEW THE civic case would become highly controversial and that inevitably she would find herself answering for every word and gesture in the witness box. She is only 34 but looks and sounds a very tired 34.

She is braced for the inevitable question about her sexual orientation but refuses to say whether she is a lesbian, saying she lives in a "blended family" that includes children. She has now left her job with DSW to return to full-time university study.

Sidey has done over 400 evidential interviews with young children — more than anyone else in the country — and before the Civic trial had been involved in five criminal and eight Family Court cases. Four of the criminal cases resulted in convictions. She is quietly confident in the quality of her work and can take some reassurance from the fact that Justice Williamson went out of his way to endorse her professionalism during one of his 17 meticulous judgements delivered before and during the Ellis trial.

He also pointed to the fact that the interviewers' work had been scrutinised by Dr Karen Zelas former president of the Australasian Society of Psychiatrists and one of New Zealand's most experienced professionals working in the field of child abuse.

Zelas acted as an expert witness for the Crown at the Ellis trial giving evidence on reliability of child witnesses, their cognitive, linguistic and developmental capacity and the extent to which their behaviour was consistent with sexually abused children.

As one of just a handful of psychiatrists qualified to act as an expert witness in this field, Zeias has frequently been wheeled out for the prosecution in child abuse cases and played a pivotal role in the bungled Spence case. Her critics say she seems incapable of considering she may ever be wrong.

The problem of course is that interviewing young child witnesses is not an empirical science; it is a new and largely unexplored area involving complex issues to do with the effects of time and trauma on the accuracy of young memories and the best ways in which to retrieve reliable information from barely verbal children.

Research shows that children are able to give reliable information concerning the central detail of events which have happened to them when they are as young as three or four. As with adult memories, the child may need some prompting before the memories are retrieved — particularly if they are associated with trauma or fear.

It is also accepted that children cannot generally create, de novo, credible accounts of sexual abuse unless they have had some experience of the events in their own lives.

But the research also shows that children are capable of invention and may even adopt false beliefs if they feel under sufficient pressure to comply and please adults who are using leading questions and suggestion.

Evidential interviews are designed to retrieve information in a controlled environment, using specific techniques designed to minimise the risk of inaccuracies or false information and maximise the detail the child can recall.

They are video and audio taped, monitored by a supervisor and specifically designed to enable young children to give evidence that is admissible in court.

In the Civic inquiry only those children who were able to make clear disclosures of abuse during evidential interviews were able to go forward to court; it didn't matter what a trembling child stammered to a parent in the privacy of their home. If it was to be used in evidence it had to come out in an evidential. A lack of resources often meant these interviews often took place weeks after the child spoke to their parents.

The defence case hinged on attempting to demolish the children's evidence by showing that it had been obtained in an entirely unprofessional and evidentially unreliable way; that parents had used leading and suggestive questions, that children had come under intolerable pressure, that therapists had muddied the water with their own preconceptions, that interviewers had pushed on and on until the children finally provided a story to satisfy the adults.

But most of all, that the investigators had gone about their business convinced of Ellis's guilt and determined to extract the evidence to prove it.

Specific criticisms of the interviews included their length —45 minutes to an hour, the fact the interviewer was already armed with information given by the parents as to what the child had alleged, the apparent lack of effect in some of the children as they described gross abuse while simultaneously humming a tune or drawing, and the refusal to take "nothing else happened" as an answer.

Sidey says the first part of this criticism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the processes involved: evidential interviews are based on the premise that abuse has taken place — they only occur once a child has made a clear verbal statement. And naturally enough that initial disclosure is often made in a totally uncontrolled setting to a totally untrained person — usually a parent, and often at bed time or in the bath.

Parents involved in the creche inquiry were warned not to question their children directly because of the risk of suggestion and contamination. Many ignored this instruction and Sidey says one of her objectives in talking to the parents before the interview was to find out what questions the parents had asked and in what context.

She and Detective Sergeant Colin Eade, who worked closely with the Civic children, both utterly reject defence witness Dr Keith Le Page's accusation that nobody bothered to look for alternative explanations for many of the children's disturbed behaviours. In interviews with parents before each evidential Sidey says she asked questions about divorce, deaths, siblings schooling problems and significant others in the child's life.

In the interview she says her aim was to try to validate what the child had said with questions like "How do you know that?" "How did that feel?", "Why do you think that?". Frequently she would specifically ask the child if they knew something "because it had happened to them" or because they had talked about it with their mother.

If a child could not convince her of the truth of their statements in the comparative security of an interview room, then she and Eade knew there was no way they would stand up under cross-examination in court.


This was a point cleverly illustrated by the Crown prosecutor Brent Stanaway during the examination of the children in Ellis's trial: Stanaway would frequently stop and ask the child whether they were sure that had happened or only thought it might have; whether they could have been mistaken about this point or been told about that by another child.

Sidey says in many cases she was able to tell parents she did not believe their child had been abused: "I certainly did not say to parents, 'Put your child in therapy anyway, they must have been abused but just can't tell me about it.'"

Sidey says in many cases the children were giving strong signals of trauma but they were missed: clusters of behavioural signals like toileting problems and nightmares. Ellis had used powerful threats against the children and as a consequence they disclosed slowly, often saying more to their parents after an interview, necessitating another evidential if the child was going to court.

Parents who have spent long nights trying to comfort  terrified children and who were only convinced of the truth of what their child had said because of their evident fear have been appalled by comments about their children's demeanour during the evidentials.

What critics described as "boredom", Sidey says is classic "distracting" - the child trying to change the subject or engross themselves in play rather than discuss the abuse.

All this was debated ad nauseum in court and specifically addressed by Justice Williamson when Ellis's counsel applied for a pretrial discharge on the grounds that the evidence had been obtained unfairly. After a lengthy and detailed examination of the arguments, Williamson dismissed the application.,

He did not say the interviewing process or the behaviour of all parents had been perfect; indeed, he said there was clear evidence in some of the interviews of leading questions and hearsay evidence. But his overall conclusion was that: "... the interviewers were qualified, mature and trained women. ... and while there might be some legitimate criticism of some aspects of these interviews... I am not satisfied that there has been improper conduct... or that there are circumstances of unfairness raised by the conduct of these evidential interviews."