The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case
A City Possessed:
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.
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.
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;