The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews


The Press
November 3 2001

Exposing the flaws
Book Review by Cynthia Hawes

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

In November 1991, while sitting in his bath, a three-year-old Christchurch boy made the now famous remark to his mother: "I don't like Peter's black penis." That statement was the beginning of the downfall of Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis, who was sentenced in 1993 to 10 years in prison for a number of sexual offences against children who had attended the Christchurch Civic Creche, where he had worked for more than five years.

A decade later, the public controversy excited at the time by the case of Peter Ellis has not abated, and disquiet over the correctness of his conviction persists.

Lynley Hood's entry into the fray with her well written and closely researched book is a brave stand for the application of objectivity and rationality, qualities which she considers to have been seriously lacking during the investigation and trial of Peter Ellis. She approaches her analysis from two points of view, the first being the broad social and historical background to the case, and the second being the close scrutiny of the course of events and procedures relating to the case itself.

The social and political atmosphere at the time made it inevitable, the author argues, that sooner or later someone would suffer the fate of Peter Ellis. A moral panic concerning sexual abuse of children, possibly with associated satanic rituals, had been well established in New Zealand during the two decades preceding the Peter Ellis case. A number of factors contributed to the widely held belief that such practices were widespread.

Significant among these was the extreme "all men are rapists" fringe of the feminist movement, which saw women and children as victims of the patriarchy and in consequence demonised men. The rise of the sexual abuse industry was a strong contributing factor. A wave of counsellors, social workers, and therapists with varying degrees of expertise promulgated specious statistics about sexual abuse. Although there were no recorded cases of satanic or ritual abuse, they encouraged the view, until it became axiomatic, that such practices existed throughout all sectors of society.

Fuel was added by literature and seminars provided by "experts", both from within New Zealand and overseas. As a result, parents and other agencies developed disproportionate and unrealistic concerns about child sexual abuse. The liberal provision of lump-sum payments by ACC to alleged sexual abuse victims also played a part.

All these ingredients found their way into the crucible that was Christchurch in 1991, and, inevitably and inexorably, the potent brew produced a result. Many of the parents were themselves involved in the sexual abuse industry and had discussed sexual abuse with their children and provided them with books on the subject. In this context, the likelihood of a complaint was, as the author describes it, "poised, like the hands on the Doomsday Clock, at a few minutes before midnight".

The Crown case was based upon information, or "disclosures", made by creche children. No child ever complained of sexual molestation of any kind by Peter Ellis while at the creche and no signs of injuries were observed by parents. It was only after the "black penis" comment had been made, and alarmed parents had discussed the matter among themselves and with their children, that formal interviews were undertaken. 

Many of the children were subjected to repeated interviews despite their initially denying any wrongdoing by Peter Ellis. The description of interviewing techniques includes examples of the persistent and leading questioning which was employed. Disclosures took place amid widespread speculation and rumour which had established in the minds of the children that Peter Ellis was a bad man.

Four of his women colleagues were also charged as a result of this questioning process. By the time a preliminary hearing had determined that there was insufficient evidence to try them, they had suffered profoundly.

The author examines in detail the depositions and trial of Peter Ellis, including the judge's pre-trial rulings and the presentation of the evidence, both of which she considers unfairly prejudiced Peter Ellis. The videotaped interviews of the children had contained allegations which were inherently incredible or demonstrably false, involving such lurid features as fire, ovens, cages, axes, and killings. The charges laid excluded this improbable material and the jury saw little of it. Had these fantastic allegations been presented as a whole, the jury would have received a broader picture of the contaminated circumstances of the disclosures, and the evidence which was in fact presented would have been weakened.

It was not asserted at the trial that the children were liars, and Lynley Hood makes no such suggestion. Rather, her thesis is that the children, all of whom had been pre-schoolers while at the creche, had been interrogated months or years later by questioners intent on finding evil-doing by Peter Ellis; and they were thereby drawn into the area where fact and fiction became indistinguishable in their minds.

Lynley Hood looks behind the mantra of "believe the child" and accepts that the children may well have attempted to be truthful. However, the background of panic and the indoctrination of the children were such that it was inevitable that they would ultimately say what the questioner wanted to hear.

Lynley Hood's book is detailed, scholarly, and well researched. For those readers who have harboured doubts about the Ellis case, the book will provide further cogent support for their opinions; for others it may well induce revision of previously held views.

The book will perhaps provide impetus for the undertaking of political action to right the apparent wrong done to Peter Ellis. In matters involving human judgment, perfection is unattainable and mistakes are inevitable.

However, it is an embarrassment for the legal profession that it has taken the efforts of a person who is not one of them to examine and expose the flaws of the Peter Ellis case in such a book. Lynley Hood is to be congratulated.


* Cynthia Hawes is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Canterbury.