The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

News Reports

2001 Jan-June

Christchurch Press
March 15 2001

An end to the crèche case?

Convicted pedophile Peter Ellis has surely exhausted the judicial options to clear his name, says The Press in an editorial.

The ministerial inquiry into his case gave no grounds for Justice Minister Phil Goff to recommend a pardon. This result was not surprising, given the limited nature of the inquiry. Most New Zealanders will now hope that some finality has been brought to a case that has aroused such deep emotions.

Few New Zealand cases have received such intensive public and judicial scrutiny. Mr Ellis was convicted on 16 charges, involving seven children, in 1993 after a prolonged High Court jury trial. He went twice went to the Court of Appeal but was unable to persuade New Zealand's most eminent jurists that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.

The second hearing did open the way for the ministerial inquiry. The courtfound that there were issues outside its jurisdiction which merited further inquiry. These were whether the way in which the evidence of children was acquired was safe. One year later Sir Thomas Eichelbaum has delivered the report which dashed Mr Ellis' hopes.

Supporters of Peter Ellis will argue that the inquiry's terms of reference were so limited that it was set up to fail. It is certainly true that Mr Ellis' chances of winning his pardon through this process were very slim. Yet it must also be remembered that even a ministerial inquiry into a case that has been heard in the Court of Appeal is extremely rare. With good reason, justice ministers are traditionally reluctant to intervene in the judicial process.

It must also be noted that Sir Thomas is a highly respected former Chief Justice. Two internationally renowned experts on child abuse and children's evidence were consulted. In essence, they all agreed that the reliability of the evidence that convicted Peter Ellis was not undermined by contamination by others. According to Sir Thomas, far from this being a borderline judgment, the margin by which Mr Ellis had failed to prove his case was "distinct".

Children's Commissioner Roger McClay speaks for many New Zealanders when he hopes the case will now go away to allow the families involved to get on with their lives. He has previously criticised the extent to which publicity over the case has focused on Peter Ellis himself and cast doubt on the reliability of the children. The history of this case, however, suggests that even this week's decision will not close the issue.

Mr Ellis and his lawyer are adamant that their fight will continue. Undoubtedly they will press again for a wider inquiry, but this seems a remote possibility. Mr Goff's comments, when he released his decision, had an air of finality about them. He argues that between the various judicial hearings and the inquiry, all matters relevant to the conviction have been considered. To reinvestigate the case, including reinterviewing the children, after a decade, would be futile.

A year ago Mr Goff rejected the option of a broader and more high-powered Royal Commission into the case. Such an inquiry would have been more public and more likely to compound the distress of the families. Ellis might still seek to appeal to the Privy Council but it has been extremely rare for this body to hear New Zealand criminal cases.

While the judicial avenues might be closed, the case will not die quickly in the public mind. One of the inquiry's international experts noted that evidence contamination had occurred, due to the over-involvement of parents in the investigation and their information sharing. Certainly, he did add that the evidence which actually convicted Ellis was not rendered unreliable due to contamination.

Even so, public unease will remain over the investigation and the bizarre claims and counterclaims involving ritual abuse. This is likely to be further fuelled by a forthcoming book on the crèche case. No doubt Ellis supporters are hoping this book does for him, what David Yallop's account of the Crewe murders did for Arthur Alan Thomas.

No justice system is infallible. Yet there comes a point where all reasonable measures to prove one's innocence have been tried and failed. Unless some dramatic new evidence can be found, Peter Ellis has reached that point. For supporters this might seem harsh and unfair, but Mr Ellis cannot complain that he has been denied any opportunity offered by the justice system to prove his case.