The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case
A City Possessed:
Lynley Hood's new book on the Christchurch Civic Creche case knits together the elements surrounding Peter Ellis's child abuse convictions into a valuable resource
Hood presents a passionate overview of what some see as a witch trial
I have never read a 600-page book right through before. Lynley Hood may not have got everything right about what happened at the infamous creche, but with searing passion she has authored a cogent overview of what posterity might view as New Zealand's equivalent of the Salem witch trials. We all know fragments of the tale. To have reasoned dossier on hand, no matter its "political" slant, is valuable and to encounter a writer with such a sound grasp of legal nuance is a bonus.
Hood has knitted together all the scores of divergent elements that surround the conviction of Peter Ellis on 16 charges of sexual indecencies with children. They comprise sudden upsurges in sexual abuse consciousness, judicial deference to "experts" in child abuse, the ACC rules allowing recovered-memory payments of up to $10,000 on "proof" of molestation, the radical but inadequately debated charges in the law whereby parent/child-generated complaints no longer needed corroboration, the creche's political incorrectness, the driven detective Eade and the social bravado of Peter Ellis.
The legal outcome we know. But have there ever been such unusual legal processes and histrionics where the drama has such Greek inevitability? The reader an be left anguished and torn. How can the "first team" bench of the Court of Appeal be so admiring of a trial in which the jury was allowed to see only fully scrubbed, cosily-edited versions of interview videos? Why is there so little outrage when, during the appeal phase, the first star witness fundamentally changes her tune and the experts opine that this is but reinforcement of the central truth? Are some recovered memories more valuable than others?
The appeal was argued on the daring all-or-nothing ground that dubious and partial evidence was admitted and "chaperoned" through by a judge benignly concerned to see Ellis convicted. Ellis's defence lawyer (himself now a High Court judge) was a reluctant but dutiful advocate. He stuck strongly to the unpopular view that, even allowing for new evidential rules, the trial was skewed at the expense of evidential principles that once were beacons of British law.
But it's not just about law. Hood noses out both the flaws and the virtues of those involved. The hard-drinking, ultimately self-destructive Ellis, the streetwise tradesman barrister Rob Harrison, who would dutifully defend the seemingly indefensible, the scared women staff of the creche who knew that their best line in court was to distance themselves from Ellis while in their hearts they were with him.
Oddly, everyone is seen as basically striving to be "good" and "watching out for the kids". But when fear takes hold, who are the guardians? For me, the most chilling moment is when the author, out of left field, justifies her gruelling first 250 pages addressing the growing abuse industry and the "get the paedophile" crusades.
Because Ellis was always typecast as the man at the centre of a satanic "ring" of offenders, it had been necessary to finger "supporting" creche staff. Yet when the women defendants were discharged, the prosecution amended the charges so that "persons unknown" were suddenly assisting Ellis in "unknown", locations. Hood then lets rip that these gaps were filled in by the fertile imaginations of a community now conditioned to assume that there would be "others" lurking in the shadows.
Maybe the children did speak the truth. The appeal judges were very firm that they did. They laid a hard (if quaint) question on Ellis's courageous counsel: how could children speak of these perversions unless they experienced them in some way? The picture of Ellis that emerges is of one who supplied the answer every day of his life. His semi-reckless flamboyance, love of daring wordplays and fabrication of bizarre sexual stories about himself rubbed off on staff, parents and . . . perhaps children. If ever a man talked himself into 10 years' jail, it could well have been Peter Ellis.
Graphic: Lynley Hood - Hood presents a passionate overview of what some see as a witch trial
Graphic: Peter Ellis . . . flamboyant an loved daring wordplays and fabrication of bizarre sexual stories about himself