The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports

2001 Jan-June

The Dominion
March 14 2001

Inquiry leaves Ellis tired but unbowed
by Alan Samson

Crèche worker Peter Ellis's hopes of a pardon were ended by the findings of a government-ordered inquiry yesterday. Alan Samson reports.

Christchurch Civic Crèche worker Peter Ellis was suspended in 1991 after a complaint by a mother arising from a comment made by her son about "Peter's black penis".

In initial interviews, none of the children concerned made any allegations of sexual offending and, at one stage, police told the crèche management the inquiry was over.

However, a further interview at the end of January 1992 brought a first allegation. Many more were to follow.

There were 36 charges laid against Ellis alone, four laid jointly with other crèche workers Gaye Davidson, Jan Buckingham and Marie Keys; two charges were laid jointly against Ellis and another crèche employee, Debbie Gillespie.

As some of the evidence faltered, all charges were dropped against the women, as were some against Ellis. In 1993 he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison on 16 counts of indecencies -- reduced to 13 counts in a court process involving two unsuccessful hearings before the Court of Appeal.

Ellis, freed in February last year on automatic parole after serving almost seven years, has always maintained his innocence, even to the extent of declining early parole opportunities.

The granting of an inquiry, led by former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, was seen by most people as a last chance for Ellis to clear his name.

Yesterday, a devastated Ellis said he was tired.

His fiercest campaigner, his mother Lesley Ellis, said he was "out on his feet".

But neither was prepared to concede defeat.

At a press conference yesterday, however, Justice Minister Phil Goff said he believed Ellis was guilty and he doubted that Ellis's counsel, Judith Ablett Kerr, QC, would go to the Privy Council -- to do so would require seeking leave from a so-far unsympathetic Court of Appeal.

Kristy McDonald, QC, who represented the children, said they and their families felt vindicated.

The fever pitch reached over the case had many aspects, not the least because it came at a time of what social scientists called an international "social hysteria" related specifically to organised, ritual or "satanic" abuse.

There were several high-profile cases in Britain, the United States and Australia, and several New Zealand experts who were to be influential in the Ellis case travelled overseas to study the phenomenon.

What had this to do with Ellis? Before the charges of abuse went ahead against him, numerous other bizarre allegations were made, including of satanic killing of babies, putting children in a tunnel beneath a trapdoor, and forcing them to stand naked in a circle of adults.

Ellis was also accused of defecating and urinating on the children, sticking sharp objects into them, and hanging them in a cage from the crèche ceiling.

Subsequently, a maelstrom of counter-claims surfaced, including networking among parents; that the detective in charge of the inquiry had sexual relations with two of the mothers; that parents were told what behavioural characteristics were associated with abuse allegations before the police interviews.

Yesterday's report, which carefully examines two or three of the overseas abuse cases, and specifically tackles the bizarre claims, remains unimpressed.

Sir Thomas's report and findings do place store, however, on the two expert witnesses it canvassed: University of Leicester psychology professor Graham Davies and Canadian child psychologist Louise Sas.

The two experts make thorough and detailed appraisals of the evidence before them, both concluding that, given the state of sexual abuse knowledge at the time, a "safe" or valid investigation was carried out.

Professor Davies: "There is a degree of detail in some of these accusations which is not in itself proof of the charges, but does mean, in my view, that such accusations deserve to be taken seriously."

Dr Sas: "There is no doubt that there was some contamination of the case by the over-involvement of parents . . . in respect of the convictions that were based on the evidence of the six child complainants that I was asked to comment on, I did not feel that their evidence was seriously affected and unreliable as a result."

Of the bizarre allegations, Professor Davies says: "All but one of the accounts contain material which could be regarded as bizarre or fanciful . . . however, some research on young children in abuse cases suggests that such bizarre material can crop up in their evidence alongside telling and accurate testimony."

Sir Thomas concludes: "The case advanced on behalf of Mr Ellis fails to meet the test identified earlier, to satisfy the inquiry that the convictions were unsafe, or that a particular conviction was unsafe. It fails by a distinct margin; I have not found this anything like a borderline judgment."

And so the matter would rest, except for a persistent concern by Ellis supporters, mainly centred on Sir Thomas's own description of his review.

"This inquiry is not a general review of the Ellis case," he says. "I was to assess whether the investigations . . . and interviews of the children were conducted in accordance with best practice."

He was to report "whether there were any matters which gave rise to doubts about the assessment of the children's evidence to an extent which would render the convictions unsafe".

Supporters said yesterday that this narrowed approach, determined by Mr Goff, doomed their petition to failure. They referred to a comment by Professor Davies that a "wider investigation" was necessary, notably to test the privacy or lack thereof of the crèche toilet area where the offences were supposed to have happened.

"These are issues which are beyond my remit," he says. "But which the wider inquiry will wish to consider."

Ellis: "I know it is convenient for others for my case to be closed, but I am an innocent man . . . I will not walk away to make it easier for other people."