The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews


The NZ Law Journal
October 2001

The Christchurch Civic Crèche case
Book review by Ian Freckelton, Barrister, Melbourne

A City Possessed:
The Christchurch Civic Creche Case
by Lynley Hood.
Publisher: Longacre Press 2001

Lynley Hood, well-known to readers from her 1988 work about New Zealand writer and educationalist, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, and her 1994 work about the only woman to be hanged in New Zealand, the baby-farmer Minnie Dean, has produced a disturbing analysis of the Christchurch Civic Creche case. It is guaranteed to be highly controversial and to distress, confront and offend many within the child protection, victims and feminist spheres, as well as some within legal circles. However, the responses likely to be elicited by A City Possessed have the potential to be both constructive and cleansing if they act as the catalyst for a reflective examination of how allegations of child sexual assault and in particular ritual sexual assault can most effectively be dealt with by the criminal justice system.


A City Possessed is a substantial work indeed, running to some 672 pages. It is a scholarly tome, in the sense that it locates the Christchurch scandal within an historical, sociological and criminological context and refers to many learned analyses of moral panics, comparable episodes internationally and relevant professional writing on the investigation of child sexual assault. Fundamentally, however, Hood seeks to chronicle what occurred in the lead-up to the "disclosures" by the children at the Christchurch Creche and then to track through what occurred during the investigation, the trials, the appeals and the subsequent inquiry. In doing so she raises many questions about the child protection, criminal investigation and criminal trial systems. Some are of specific, finite dimensions, such as the justifiability of s 23G of the Evidence Act 1908; others are broader, such as how professionals can work together to investigate and then evaluate children's abuse disclosures more effectively.


It was in 1991 that arguably New Zealand's most difficult police investigation commenced when the parent of a child attending the Christchurch Civic Child Care Centre stated her suspicion that an experienced but eccentric and attention-receiving worker, Peter Ellis, may have been involved in inappropriate sexual behaviour around her son. Ultimately, over 100 children were interviewed by sexual abuse workers from the Department of Social Welfare. Ellis, together with four female colleagues at the creche, faced charges relating to the period 1986 until 1992. Ellis was alleged to have inserted his fingers, his penis, needles, sticks and food into the vaginas, mouth's and anuses of children in his care. He was accused of urinating on them and coercing them into drinking urine and eating faeces. Another worker was alleged to have inserted her finger into a child's vagina and to have engaged in sexual intercourse with Ellis in the creche toilets. Three others were accused of participating in what became known as "the circle incident", an occasion when sticks were supposed to have been inserted in children's anuses and when children were prompted by the workers to kick each others' genitals and to perform a variety of indecencies.


All five accused persons were committed for trial after an 11 week preliminary hearing but by the time the case reached the High Court, only Ellis remained, facing 28 charges involving improprieties alleged to have been committed against 13 children. Three charges were dismissed in the course of the trial. After a trial of 29 days, a jury of nine women and three men found Ellis guilty on three counts of sexual violation, eight counts of indecent assault and five counts of performing, or inducing children to perform, indecent acts. He was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. Fourteen months later, a child described by the Crown as "compelling and believable" retracted her allegations, saying she had lied because she had thought that was what her mother had wanted her to say. This resulted in the Court of Appeal quashing the convictions for the three counts relating to the child but upholding the remaining 13 convictions and declining to interfere with the sentence imposed upon Ellis (R v Ellis (1994) 12 CRNZ 172). In 1999 a further appeal was launched to the Court of Appeal which convened in a bench of five (R v Ellis [1999] NZCA 226). It heard new evidence and fresh arguments but declined to interfere with its previous decision.

In 2000 the Attorney-General commissioned the former Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, to investigate "matters relevant to the assessment of the reliability of the children's evidence". He enlisted the assistance of further experts from Britain and the United States. He was required to consider reports from the Cleveland Inquiry, the Orkney Inquiry, the San Diego Grand jury, the New South Wales Royal Commission, a New Zealand Law Commission Discussion Paper and the United Kingdom Memorandum of Good Practice, as well as the joint New Zealand Children and Young Persons Service and Police Operating Guidelines. In 2001, his conclusion was announced. It was that a pardon was contra-indicated and that the evidence did not establish that the convictions individually or in the aggregate were unsafe. By this stage, Ellis had been released from custody, having served his sentence.


It is fair to say that the Christchurch Creche saga has polarised and unnerved New Zealanders, and many in other countries, for the better part of a decade. Its subject matter is salacious, emotive and frightening. The idea that a group of workers at a place where parents entrust their young children could have preyed upon them sexually is terrifying. So too is the potential that circumstances may have children having made extremely serious allegations against an innocent man. However, the allegations raised in Christchurch are of an ilk encountered in a number of countries previously. The benefit of hindsight and the work of writers such as Paul and Shirley Eberle (The Abuse of Innocence: the McMartin Preschool Trial, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1993) has exposed nearly all such cases as the product of moral panics, media hysteria and ill-executed investigations. The result has been immense damage not just to the persons directly involved but also to the reputation of child protection systems and confidence in the criminal justice system.


Hood's approach is far from the "disinterested observer" style of documentary. She even became caught up as a player in the final appeal to the Court of Appeal as lawyers representing Ellis sought access to tapes of interviews that she conducted in preparation for the manuscript. The years that Hood has devoted to research on the case have left her with strong views which repeatedly intrude into the text, sometimes with a journalistic propensity to view things as occurring with inevitability, sometimes with a disappointing tone of sarcasm and bitterness.

Some readers will find that Hood's passionately felt views about a miscarriage of justice detract from her credibility as a reliable historian. However, she is open about her stance. Hood recites that when she commenced her research, the key question upon which she focused was the extent to which the staff at the Centre had been involved in child sexual abuse. However, ultimately she became convinced that no illegality whatever had occurred - "Instead, I found convincing evidence that more than 100 Christchurch children had been subject to unpleasant and psychologically hazardous procedures for no good reason, and that a group of capable and caring adults with no inclinations towards sexual misconduct with children had had their lives ruined as a result. The disquieting outcome drew my focus from the creche to the forces that had brought about its downfall. By the time I came to write this book the key question I faced was this: how on earth did the complainant families, the child protection services, the justice system and the government get it so wrong?" (p 33-34.)

Hood uses the Christchurch Creche case as a vehicle for commenting widely on related issues, sometimes too widely and not as informedly as might be desirable. An example is her less than accurate analysis of the current professional view of post-traumatic stress disorder: "Because this grab-bag of symptoms is as unoriginal as it is all-encompassing, many mainstream psychiatrists regard PTSD as a fashionable collage rather than a genuine disorder. . . .  This 'post-traumatic' explanation encourages disaffected individuals to blame their troubles on some past trauma, even if no objective evidence of any such trauma can be found". (p 64.) There is a degree too to which she unfairly singles out psychiatrist Dr Karen Zelas for adverse comment. However, this is a view with which reasonable people could disagree. More importantly, perhaps, this reviewer felt that at times Hood's concerns about over-diagnosis of child sexual assault led her to minimise the incidence of the phenomenon and the seriousness of its sequelae, particularly for adults who do not display primary or overt later symptomatology. However, the bottom line of Hood's plea is for calm, scientific evaluation of complaints of childhood abuse. Few would disagree that this is the appropriate environment within which serious criminal allegations should be assessed.

A City Possessed has two particular strengths. The first is its chronicling of events leading up the disclosures made by the Christchurch Creche children. Hood meticulously recounts the visits of persons to New Zealand such as Astrid Heger, the paediatrician who mis-diagnosed child sexual abuse in the McMartin preschool case in California in 1988, and the so-called Satanic ritual abuse expert Pamela Klein in 1990. She records oscillations in the reporting of child sexual abuse, identifies a series of factors ("sex, sexism and the new demonology") that could have led to the too ready reception of the complaints as they evolved in the Christchurch case, and, controversially, profiles the background of a series of the parents at the creche in child protection, suggesting that these played a role in how events transpired. She contends that a series of beliefs had come to hold sway in New Zealand prior to the Christchurch allegations coming to light which, she argues, contributed to the uncritical acceptance of the first complaints that were made and an unpreparedness to acknowledge the degree of contamination of the children's disclosures which was evident from the first. These beliefs she identifies as:

·           child sexual abuse is a widespread problem with serious long term consequences;

·           all males are potential child molesters;

·           high priority must be given to discovering and treating victims of child sexual abuse, and to convicting and punishing offenders;