Southland Times
June 26 2003

A minister possessed

A retired High Court judge says he has serious misgivings about the Christchurch Civic Creche child abuse case.

One hundred and forty prominent New Zealanders, including two former prime ministers, MPs from all parties and prominent lawyers, have signed a petition calling for a royal commission of inquiry into former childcare worker Peter Ellis' conviction.

Lynley Hood's book, A City Possessed, presented a compelling argument that the judicial system failed Ellis.

Of course, none of these occurrences is reason to state emphatically that Ellis was innocent. But each adds considerable weight to the opinion held by a large number of New Zealanders that there are reasonable doubts about whether Ellis was guilty.

A decade after Ellis' imprisonment in 1993 these doubts continue to gnaw away at the public conscience. The Civic Creche case was the most sensational of its kind in
New Zealand legal history, with accusations of bizarre satanic rituals and child abuse of the most deviant kind imaginable.

Hood's book painted a picture of a city caught in the grip of a form of mass hysteria, a moral panic similar to that experienced in the American town of
Salem during its infamous witch-hunt of the late 17th century. This may have overstated the case somewhat but, with the benefit of hindsight and more evidence than the Ellis trial jury was given the opportunity to hear, it is not difficult to see a spiral of diminishing objectivity and perspective after the first wild allegations of sex abuse at the creche started doing the rounds.

Ellis has already served his time, and to his real credit is politely distancing himself from this latest public rally. But this petition, like previous calls for a review of the case, is more about satisfying New Zealanders' confidence in their justice system than it is about clearing Ellis' name.

A full review of all the evidence could arrive at the conclusion that Ellis was guilty but until all the evidence is reviewed, that question, like so many others about the case, will remain unanswered and confidence in the judiciary will continue to be eroded.

Justice Minister Phil Goff's continued refusal to order a royal commission isn't improving the public's perception that justice has not been done.

Mr Goff has the power to settle public disquiet but clings obstinately to the view that the High Court trial, two Court of Appeal hearings and a ministerial inquiry got it right and that only the presentation of new evidence would be grounds for a full inquiry.

There are reasons why Mr Goff doesn't want to order a royal commission. They are expensive, complex and cumbersome affairs, and they can re-open victims' old wounds, but they have their uses.

Pukekawa farmer Arthur Allan Thomas had good cause to be thankful for the royal commission into his case. He spent nine years in prison after twice being convicted of the 1970 murder of his neighbours Jeanette and Harvey Crewe but was freed, pardoned and paid compensation after the inquiry found police planted evidence incriminating him.

Mr Goff understands that criticisms of the Ellis case strike at the very heart of the judiciary but fails to accept that the judiciary is human too and therefore, like all humans, fallible.

It would take a brave and decisive minister to publicly accept the possibility that a failure occurred in the justice system and that the failure could not be corrected from within.

As an idealistic and energetic Opposition MP in the 1990s, Mr Goff once called for a full inquiry into the Ellis case.

Now that he has the power to do something about it, where is the courage to match his earlier conviction? Public unease about the Ellis case will continue to haunt this Government and others in the future if it is not settled once and for all.

Mr Goff can bring closure to this sordid chapter in
New Zealand history and restore faith in the judiciary. He must order a royal commission of inquiry.