The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports

2001 Jan-June

NZ Herald
March 14 2001

Children's testimony vindicated in Ellis case
by Audreay Young

A ministerial inquiry finds no grounds to set aside Peter Ellis' child abuse convictions and pardon him. Audreay Young reports.

Peter Ellis has lost what is essentially a de facto third appeal against convictions for mass child abuse.

His 1993 convictions for child abuse at the Christchurch Civic Crèche are thoroughly safe, according to former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, who released the results of his inquiry into the case yesterday.


What did Sir Thomas decide?


Sir Thomas said: "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."

He is not saying Ellis is guilty or not guilty. He is saying that the reliability of the evidence on which the convictions were based was not undermined by so-called contamination by other people.


Why was the inquiry set up?


Justice Minister Phil Goff announced a ministerial inquiry on February 2 last year, the day Ellis was released from his 10-year prison sentence.

It was, in a way, suggested in the judgment from a second Court of Appeal hearing into the Ellis case.

The judges dismissed his appeal, not finding enough new evidence on the contamination of children's testimony to set aside the verdict. But the court said its jurisdiction was limited and that matters relating to the reliability of evidence might be better addressed by a commission of inquiry.

Mr Goff opted for a one-man inquiry over a commission, arguing that he did not want the whole case relitigated before a commission.

He asked Sir Thomas to identify current best practice for investigating mass allegations in sexual abuse cases and to determine whether they had been followed.

Two international experts were invited to examine the videotaped evidence of the seven children on which the convictions were based.


Who were the experts Sir Thomas engaged?


He declined to take the recommended experts offered by either Ellis or the crèche parents. He used Professor Graham Davies, professor of psychology at Leicester University in Britain, and Dr Louise Sas, a child psychologist from Ontario, Canada.

They independently examined the evidence and reached the same conclusion.


What is the background to the case?


Peter Ellis was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment in 1993 after being convicted on 16 charges of sexually abusing seven children at the Christchurch Civic Crèche.

There had been 11 complainants by the time the case got to trial. Three of the convictions were later quashed on appeal when a complainant retracted her allegations.

Four women co-workers of Ellis were arrested during the investigation and faced indecency charges. But they were discharged before the Ellis case went to trial.

The first allegation was made in November 1991 by a 3-year-old boy who told his father he "hated Peter's black penis."

His evidence was never presented at trial, but more bizarre allegations emerged, including claims that the children were made to strip and dance naked and were hung in cages.

Other allegations made by the children included having their private parts cut off, having sticks inserted into their bottoms, needles inserted into them, being placed in coffins, taking part in ritual killings and taking part in mock marriages.

After the first allegation, a psychologist from Social Welfare's specialist services unit spoke to a meeting of parents about symptoms of child abuse. Some children were interviewed by the unit, but in the initial interviews no allegations were made of sexual abuse and the police closed the inquiry.

The first allegation in an interview was made in January 1992, and at least 118 children were interviewed by the end of 1992.


What was Ellis' submission to the inquiry?


Submissions on his behalf included criticism of the interviewing of children.

That included such things as the large number of interviews - spread over five months during which the allegations grew in bizarreness - suggestive questioning, absence of probing, use of dolls, drawings and other props, and failure to pick up inconsistencies.

It contends that the average time between last contact with the children and their interview was 18 months, which would weaken memories and make children more likely to incorporate adult suggestions.

It contended that some mothers played a vital role in the distribution of information to other parents and that interviewers from the specialist services unit knew the parents were discussing abuse allegations with their children but failed to discourage them.


What did the Crown and the parents tell the inquiry?


The Crown contended that risk of contamination did not equate to actual contamination, and the fact that parents had information did not mean it was passed on to the children.

It said the jury made its assessment with all the relevant information about "mass hysteria" and the risk of mass allegations, and there was nothing new in the Ellis case.

The parents contended that they had to be free to speak to their children and to seek information and support from friends and agencies.


What did the Commissioner for Children say?


Roger McClay made submissions to the inquiry in which he said Ellis and his supporters had captured the media platform and waged an effective campaign to sway public opinion. The inquiry, 10 years after events, was unjust to the children concerned.

His submission said no conclusive research into mass allegations had been found.

If a child made an allegation of abuse, caring parents would want to talk to the child about it and offer support. The criminal justice system should not discourage such protective behaviour.


What were some of the conclusions?


Louise Sas, the child psychologist from Ontario: "There is no doubt there was some contamination of the case by the over-involvement of parents in the investigation and the sharing of information between the complainant parents ...

"Having said that, 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 contamination.

"The effect in my view was that there likely would have been more convictions if the issue of contamination by parents had not been raised so frequently."

Professor Davies, the Leicester University psychologist: "The interviews were conducted before the introduction of national standards for interviewing. However judged by today's standards, the quality of interviewing stands up surprisingly well ...

"If it is accepted that at least some elements of a child's accusations are unbelievable, where does this leave the more credible elements? In terms of law such bizarre material is bound to decrease the credibility of a witness in the eyes of a jury.

"However, some pilot research on young children in abuse cases suggests that such bizarre material can crop up in their evidence alongside telling and accurate testimony.

"The presence of bizarre elements is not in itself proof that the whole of the child's testimony is tainted."

Sir Thomas Eichelbaum: "The formal interviewing was of a high standard for its time. Even by present-day standards, it was of good overall quality.

"The interviews did not meet best practice in every respect, and if that degree of perfection were the test, few if any interview of this kind would pass. Aspects of the systems set in place for the investigation could have been improved.

"However, that made no significant difference to the outcome.

"Questioning and investigations by some parents exceeded what was desirable and had the potential for contaminating children's accounts."