The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports Index

1993 June-Dec

Radio New Zealand
National Programme
September 1, 1993

Kim Hill - Interview with Dr Sherrill Mulhern
Anthropologist, Expert on "Ritual Child Abuse"

Two Victoria University academics believe a rising moral panic is an element in the Civic Creche trial in Christchurch. The trial saw former child care worker Peter Ellis jailed for 10 years for sexually abusing young children, while four women had similar charges against them dropped.    A paper by sociology professor Michael Hill and thesis scholar Jenny Barnett called When The Devil Came To Christchurch claims to establish a clear link between community fears of Satanic ritual abuse and Christian fundamentalism.    

Marie Hosking reports.

Marie Hosking:
The paper, which is about to be published in the Australian Religious Studies Review, suggests there's been a Satanic panic in  New  Zealand and that it's been fuelled by Christian fundamentalists who have been presenting themselves as experts in this previously unfamiliar field of child abuse. 

The pair say these so-called experts have been invited to speak at social work and police seminars where their ideas gained acceptance from those at the forefront of child protection.  Michael Hill and Jenny Barnett traced the roots of the Christchurch creche case back to late 1991 when a visiting American Christian sexual abuse therapist addressed fundamentalist-backed workshops, stating that the usual damage caused to children by Satanic abuse was multi-personality disorder and that research showed that about half of all children suffering from this condition had been victims of Satanic ritual abuse.    

Then there was the Christchurch Family Violence Prevention Seminar a month later, where a group called the Ritual Action Group presented a paper on Satanism and ritual abuse.  It attracted a lot of media coverage and Hill and Barnett believe this served to fuel the moral panic.   

A short time later there was publicity about a prominent New Zealand policeman who had been studying US ritual abuse investigation techniques.  It was shortly after this that the first allegations were made in the Christchurch creche case that eventually led to the conviction of Peter Ellis. Hill and Barnett say that when the four women were arrested in the creche investigation the case changed in the public mind from one of a lone predatory male abuser to one of organised abuse.

The paper also links the preoccupation of ritualised abuse with other high profile cases involving allegations and convictions associated with other religious groups including Catholic priests, the leader of Centrepoint Community, the leader of the Cooperite sect and the investigation into a group known as The Family in Australia.    

In Christchurch for Morning Report, Marie Hoskings.

Kim Hill:
Well, as explained by our reporter, the paper which talks about elements of moral panic seems to have infiltrated into New Zealand from the United States.  In the States there have been a series of bizarre allegations from people who claim to have been ritually abused.  There have also been scares over paedophilia and child care centres tied in with so-called Satanism.     An academic who has been researching this area is Dr Sherrill Mulhern, an anthropologist based in Paris.   

She's on the phone now.     Good morning.

Sherrill Mulhern:
Good morning.

Kim Hill
Is there an agreed-on definition of ritual abuse or satanic abuse?

Sherrill Mulhern
No, that's one of the big problems is that over the past 10 years, or a little more than 10 years, when this panic, as you call it, began, we've had seven to eight different definitions which have been proposed by believers.  None of them of course speak about the allegations that children and adults are making.  They talk about a horrible kind of abuse perpetrated by some kind of a believer but of course that is very abstract and practically anything can be put into it.  So we really have no consensus about what we're talking about when we use the term ritual abuse.

Kim Hill
In the paper we've just heard about there's been a link with a trial based on a child care centre.   Are there these sort of links involving child care centres in the United States.

Sherrill Mulhern
Well we've had a lot of cases like that in the United States. The first ones begin in the early 80's and there's some characteristics about these cases.  

First, the quality and the quantity of the allegations that were made by very young children.  They were particularly horrible, they were made by children who did not make them at the beginning of the interrogation but made them after many months and sometimes years of intensive therapy. 

The second important point is that the therapists have been playing the role of interrogators as opposed to having the police interrogating.

And finally the salient point is that in all of the cases which I'm familiar with, and that's over about a hundred of these kinds of cases involving day care there's never been any material evidence produced that will corroborate the extreme allegations.

And I am very careful to say I am talking about allegations including murder, cannibalism, torture, satanism, robes, knives, stuff like that. I'm not talking about allegations of possible fondling.

But the quality and the quantity of these kinds of allegations have been absolutely extraordinary in these cases in the United States and that seems to be what you're talking about in your case in New Zealand.

Kim Hill
So are you convinced that this is a form of perhaps hysteria?

Sherrill Mulhern
Well that's not, hysteria is a big term, I actually use it, it certainly, I think what we decided to use the term moral panic, a little; more accurate. Hysteria is in fact a psychological term. It is definitely a social panic insofar as that it's being carried by groups of believers.

Kim Hill
There are claims in the paper that we've just heard about that in fact the groups set up to deal with the problem, perhaps social workers or police groups, in themselves propagate the claims. Do you believe that?

Sherrill Mulhern
Yes, it's a real problem because if you know anything about interrogation. If you have an interrogator going in with a potential victim or witness with a pre-established belief system they will tend to selectively listen to things that confirm their pre-established belief and isolate and disregard things that are not corroborating their belief system.

This is why we say that this is being propagated by trained police and or social workers. People who've heard about the supposed panic and then go in and try and prove it.

Kim Hill
Surely ...

Sherrill Mulhern
They don't necessarily do it intentionally but it's how they've come to believe there's a thing out there and they don't look at what's happened in the case, they're more interested in proving that it exists.

Kim Hill
Have in fact in the United States, have any of these cases been proved.

Sherrill Mulhern
We've had some cases where there have been convictions. Now, in saying that there's been convictions you don't have to necessarily say that the case has been proven.

There, people have been, I know of several cases where people were convicted to very long prison terms and they were overturned on appeal. Every one that has gone to appeal has been overturned because there was never any corroborative evidence and then each time these cases have gone on to an appeals court there has been a feeling that the evidence or the interrogation process was completely at fault.

Kim Hill
It seems in some of their cases, if they were in fact true, there should have been evidence. They talk about the deaths of babies ...

Sherrill Mulhern
Yes, I know.

Kim Hill
... have bodies been found, have scars been found on people?

Sherrill Mulhern
Pardon me?

Kim Hill
Have bodies in fact been found, have children found to be scarred?

Sherrill Mulhern
No. One, bodies haven't been found and the questions of children being scarred. In fact, even from medical evidence, it's been very; very poor what we've had in cases like this.

Originally you will get something that a medical practitioner will say, well it could be sexual abuse, at least it's compatible with it but it's certainly not significantly indicative of sexual abuse. Now as of saying children are scarred because of rope burns, torture burns, no we have no evidence like this.

Kim Hill
Well, there is a claim in the paper that we've been hearing about that in fact the rise in allegations of ritual abuse is linked to the rise in the use of child care centres because parents feel tension about leaving their children behind in the hands of other people for such a long period of time. Do you believe in this?

Sherrill Mulhern
I say that I would agree in the sense that it makes parents worry, okay. I wouldn't say that child care centres are responsible for it but I think that makes parents, they are vulnerable because they are not with their children. So if this kind of thing begins they can become very easily frightened and they can actually fall into patterns of behaviour which encourage the panic and it's not an intention on their part, it's because they have become frightened that something might have happened.

And they may question their children repeatedly believing they're doing the best thing for their child but, you know, this is where they're caught in the situation where they don't know exactly what happened, they want to do the best thing. They become frightened and then your situation, which could begin with a simple incident in the school, for example, of a child receiving a spanking, or something like that, it can get the panic started.

People who are frightened questioning children, in the space of a few months you can have a full-blown moral panic where you can't ever find out what happened in the first place because you've got people talking about dead babies and spaceships and sacrificed animals. And those kinds of things, of course, if any of it had happened would have left some kind of material evidence. So you know, you've destroyed the problem that you were trying to solve.

Kim Hill
A lot of concerns have been raised, both by the case and this kind of paper. Do you have any advice for parents?

Sherrill Mulhern
Who get involved in this sort of thing?

Kim Hill
Yes, or who feel that they may be?

Sherrill Mulhern
I think one thing parents should know is that these, as far as I know, and I've been researching it for 10 years, we do not have convincing evidence that any kind of organised conspiracy perpetrating the kinds of things that you're describing in your case or that we've seen in the United States exist. That's the first thing.

And when you have an investigation in a child care situation one must be very cautious about what's going because children who are very young are very easily influenced by well-meaning and sincere people trying to get at the truth.

Unfortunately little children will follow your worst fears, they don't necessarily, you don't accept their answer that nothing happened and continually repeat your questions to them they will pick up on your fears and will project into them. So that parents must be very cautious and if an incident does occur when their child is in a child care situation they really need to work very closely with responsible police investigators and hopefully responsible social workers who are cautious and conscious of the fact that we just don't have any kind evidence that would prove the kind of things we're seeing in these cases.

And also, a final thing, in each case, it has to be investigated for itself, because something happened or might have happened or could have happened in New York City doesn't mean that that same thing happened in New Zealand.

Kim Hill
Mulhern, thank you. Dr Sherrill Mulhern is an anthropologist, based in Paris.