The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews


NZ Lawyer
October 4 2001

A City Possessed
Book Review by Ian Freckelton

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

Lynley Hood's long-awaited potboiler account of the Christchurch Civic Creche case is now published. It is as controversial as anticipated, and perhaps longer than expected.

A City Possessed reviews the extraordinary saga of the allegations of ritual sexual abuse in respect of Peter Ellis and four other childcare workers. It is a hard-hitting and fascinating analysis of the many influences that she contends contributed to the moral panic which gave rise to the charges.

Her arguments fall squarely within a well recognised history of such crises, which date back at least to 16th and 17th century witchhunts. More controversial are her analyses of the role of experts, child protection workers, police, homophobes and lesbians, in the evolution of allegations particularly against Peter Ellis, the childcare worker at the centre of the case.

Lynley Hood was granted unparalleled access to players in the Christchurch drama, although a number of the parents of the children who made "disclosures" not surprisingly declined to speak to her. However, thousands of pages of transcript from the criminal justice process, both at first instance and on the various appeals, filled the gap effectively. Ms Hood intersperses her analysis of the psychiatrists' and psychologists' opinions with close examination of the text of the children's allegations and retractions, weaving a deeply disturbing picture of how so many patently absurd allegations could have become intermingled with so many apparently sound accounts.

Lynley Hood has strong views about the case and found herself and her manuscript overtaken by the legal proceedings, having tapes of interviews that she had conducted subpoenaed to the Court of Appeal in the 1999 appeal for the proceedings that immediately preceded Ellis' release upon completion of his sentence in February 2000. She believes passionately that the history of the case reflects poorly upon the New Zealand administration of justice and concludes the book with the contention that the 2000 Eichelbaum Report into the case "will serve only to bring a commission of inquiry into the New Zealand criminal justice system that much closer."

Whether or not one accepts Ms Hood's final contention, that Ellis was scapegoated by wellmeaning but obsessed crusaders, her account of the Christchurch Civic Creche saga constitutes an internationally important record of an extraordinary and frightening episode in New Zealand legal history. There can be no doubt that Ms Hood's work compels reassessment of the way those concerned about the welfare of young children looked after in creches should go about their task when allegations or "disclosures" are made. The case will have many repercussions, following a series of parallel controversies in other parts of the world - notably the Cleveland scandal in England, the Orkney intervention north of Scotland, and the McMartin pre-school scandal in California, to name a few. If the Christchurch Civic Creche case has revealed the criminal investigative system as "found wanting", it has also cast a worrying light on the objectivity of a series of well-regarded experts and campaigners, in New Zealand and internationally, upon whom the legal system needs to be able to rely in times of crisis. It poses questions not only about the circumstances in which the notorious section 23G of the Evidence Act 1908 became part of New Zealand law, but also about whether there is any empirical justication for its retention.

A City Possessed is a landmark work. The author has brought to her task strong views and occasionally lapses infelicitously into sarcasm and parody. However, she emerges not as an advocate for Peter Ellis but as a concerned historian with an extraordinary challenge to the criminal justice system. Whether one agrees with her or is satisfied with the decisions of a jury, eight Judges of the Court of Appeal and a Ministerial Inquiry, chaired by a former Chief Justice of New Zealand, the issues she raises are confronting, worrying and demand a considered response.

A City Possessed is well written, excellently edited and professionally presented. It walks the difficult line between a scholarly work and a book that is engaging and accessible. Ultimately, it does so successfully, entertaining, provoking and chronicling an extraordinary legal and social saga which is deserving of the kind of in-depth treatment given to it by Lynley Hood. Her analysis of the Christchurch Civic Creche saga will prove controversial. It deserves to be read by all who are concerned with the potential for injustice, and with the way our communities should deal with emotive and disturbing accounts of misconduct by adults against children.