The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews


Otago Daily Times
October 20, 2001

Disturbing insights in creche case
Book review by Gavin McLean
Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.

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

Near the start of this disturbing book, Lynley Hood sets out her credentials for writing it: heterosexual, grandmother, liberal, feminist, writer. Nevertheless, she warns, this is not an ‘"everyone's-point-of-view-is-valid-by-their-own-lights sort of book".

 No, A City Possessed is a "story of right and wrong", with the wrongdoers being those who believe that terrible things happened at the Christchurch City Council's Civic Creche. Few of us will not have formed an opinion on this long-running and highly publicised case and the book will anger many people, shock others and comfort still more.

 In a nutshell, Hood sees the Peter Ellis trial as a dual-purpose event: at one level a formal determination of the accused's guilt; at another, "a community purification ritual brought into being by years of city-wide anxiety over allegations of rampant sexual abuse, clandestine pornography rings and Satanic cults".

 She blames authoritarian feminist literature for perverting the sexual abuse prevention industry in the 1980s with its dogma that "the job of the feminist therapist is the subversion of patriarchy in the client, the therapist, and the therapy process" and the insistence that the child must always be believed.

 This created three problems. First, dogma blinded the practitioners. Second, they received little training in a new and rapidly growing profession so that by the time the Civic Creche case erupted in 1991, most "were as poorly trained and poorly supervised as they had always been". Third, old ACC rules gave incentives to claim lump-sum payments.

 Chillingly, at a 1989 ritual abuse conference, the audience was told that ‘"eccentric, alienated, unsocialised and paranoid personality types are needed to ferret out allegations of child sex abuse in the face of lack of evidence and conventional, well-socialised parents and professionals (who reinforce denial for their own mutual belief)".

 In other words, the sort of people that Hood describes: The crusading detective (who nevertheless has affairs with some of the mothers of creche children) and "Mrs Magnolia", the dysfunctional serial accuser who lays the charges and whose subsequent interference leads to the "contamination of the children's evidence caused by parental networking and parental questioning of the children".

 Contamination of the evidence by biased interrogators and hysterical parents fanned the flames. "Finally, in late February 1992, after three months of parental questioning about Peter Ellis, nudity, sex, breasts, vaginas, penises, ejaculation, bottoms, scariness, naughtiness, soreness, secrets, yukky touching, toileting, poos, wees and the creche, the kids started talking dirty".

 Hood argues that Peter Ellis, doubly vulnerable for being male and for being gay, stood little chance once accused. The expert witnesses were too committed to believing the children to be a resource available to the defence. Nor was the law much good. In 1989 the Evidence, Crimes and Summary Proceedings Act and associated regulations about videotaping required judges to balance the requirement to "minimise stress on the complainant" against the cornerstone of British justice, ensuring "a fair trial for the accused".

 From now on it was possible for juries to view "pre-recorded interviews with child complainants conducted by interviewers trained in the beliefs and methods of the child protection movement". In 1984 Newspeak, one manual told practitioners to avoid phrases like "the examination was normal" and to say instead that "this examination is consistent with the allegation of sexual abuse".

 The charges reflected the absurdity of the "believe the child" ideology. We became familiar with the "Peter's black penis" accusation, but it was just one of many nonsensical childish fantasies: grown adults found themselves advocating for a child who insisted that the penis is at the back of a person, the boy who claimed that another had been run down and killed while out walking with Ellis, or another, physically unscarred child who claimed that Ellis had wrenched his penis with pliers.

 Nonsense, you say? Listen to the experts: "children who have been intimidated into silence are unlikely to disclose voluntarily; and that, when subject to expert analysis, apparently insubstantial and unbelievable disclosures obtained through the use of persistent and leading questions can be found to be reliable".

 Perhaps the most interesting information is Hood's brief treatment of how similar charges were handled at another Christchurch creche, Creche X. In each case the same woman accused a gay male worker of assaulting the same child. At Creche X, however, the staff stood together, the management was firm and the policing less biased. Accusations did not spook the community.

 A City Possessed makes many demands on the reader. It's long (670 pages, unillustrated) but fortunately Hood's prose style is simple and direct. In general she does a good job of leading you through the legal, moral and medical thickets. Like the lawyers she discusses, she is a skilful advocate.

 I have some reservations. Much has been written about mass hysteria and the comparison with witch-hunting is fair, but she lays it on too thickly for my liking and despite the existence of "the Bible Lady", the Wizard and other strange people and organisations, I am not sure that it is productive to argue that Christchurch is such an unusual place. On page 141 she fails to follow through with national comparisons of ACC-paid counselling sessions. I also felt that the book could also have been trimmed of detail.

 Nevertheless, this is an important, engrossing and, as I said at the start, a highly disturbing book. Whether you believe Peter Ellis's innocence or not - and I am inclined to - it is worth reading and discussing for the wider issues that emerge. At a time when educators and parents are lamenting the poor performance of boys in schools, any ideological and legal barriers to males entering the caring and teaching professions should be examined closely.