The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews


North and South Magazine
December 2001

A City Possessed
Book review by Chris Bourke

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

In an earlier age. Arthur Allan Thomas would have been hanged. For David Bain, perhaps the final solution would have been a “more humane” injection. But for Peter Ellis, convicted of child abuse, a gothic response served society well over the centuries: burning at the stake. As our celebrated crimes get more gruesome, it’s tempting for all of us to want a simple resolution. But if ever a case proved that life is never straightforward, it’s the Christchurch Civic Creche tragedy.

The case is tragic because, apart from Ellis, hundreds of lives were damaged, families broken up, careers ruined. Yet still there’s a nagging doubt that the accusations were fantasy, a product of fevered imaginations fed by prejudice and zealotry.

Lynley Hood has left no stone unturned in her 672-page examination of the Civic Creche saga, A City Possessed (Longacre, $59.95), that took her seven years to write. The title reflects the conclusion she draws: that a “moral panic” took place within elements of Christchurch society, driven by madcap political fashions, homophobia or old-fashioned Puritanism. Legitimate concerns of crèche parents, government and welfare agencies, plus the police and judiciary made an unhealthy combination with the swift social changes of the 1980s.

The child abuse “industry” had emerged, much of it driven by militant feminism, psychobabble and, suggests Hood, the easy $10,000 then offered by the ACC for damage caused. After an intense debate, homosexuality had been legalised – leaving fear and urban myths festering in the community.

Peter Ellis’ overt lifestyle (“caution was not one of his strengths”) was a magnet for anxious parents, particularly the possibly unstable one who set the ball rolling (the child was taken to another crèche, where another gay worker was then accused of abuse).

Hood, the biographer of two other misfits – educationalist Sylvia Ashton Warner and “baby farmer” Minnie Dean – has collated her extraordinary research into a compellingly readable legal epic. The tone is calmly partisan; she takes 200 pages to explain the background that made Ellis’ employment at the crèche a ticking “Doomsday clock”. A recent paedophile case, a “worthy” radio series on child abuse and recovered memory, plus the obsessive Ritual Abuse Group all helped push the hands to midnight.

Then, frenzy set in, with vulnerable children being harangued by leading questions, and gossip mongering contaminating evidence. Hood argues that this alleged epidemic of child abuse is likely to be an epidemic of rumour. Which points to the other tragedy of the Civic Creche saga: it undermined child abuse as an urgent social challenge.