The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case
A City Possessed:
Whenever a high-profile criminal case comes to court, we wonder: Is the person charged guilty or innocent? Will all the facts come to light? Just what is the truth anyway?
The case that rocked Christchurch in the early'90s, the Christchurch Civic Creche case in which staff member Peter Ellis was convicted of sexually abusing some of the children in his care, raised huge and bitter debate.
Dunedin author Lynley Hood, not only thought deeply about the case but went on to devote seven years of her life to delving into it. "I have always been fascinated by controversial issues," says Lynley, "and this one was most controversial.
"And when opinion is divided, as it was in this case, it raises the question, where does the truth lie?"
Lynley's seven-year quest for the truth culminated in her just-published book A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case.
Her search for answers took her way outside her comfort zone, she says, as she came across layer upon layer of questionable material. "I'm not suggesting anyone has a monopoly on the truth but there's a huge difference between lies and self-deception and verifiable facts," says Lynley.
At the time the Ellis case came up, Lynley was writing another book on a similarly controversial case that had taken place in New Zealand more than 100 years before, the Minnie Deans case, which involved a woman accused of murdering children in her care. And what Lynley found fascinating in both these cases, was how otherwise normal, intelligent people can believe the most bizarre and unlikely suggestions.
"The Minnie Deans case showed how unbalanced the scales of justice can be. A number of urban myths grew up around her (such as 'nothing will grow on her grave') which were also reminiscent of the witch hunts that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.
"At a conference I attended in Australia in 1990, the Lindy Chamberlain case was brought up in relation to a child abuse case in the US where there were suggestions of satanic ritual abuse, then when the creche case blew up, I thought, 'here we go again,' " she says.
Lynley says she was aware of what the reaction would be to the allegations of child sexual abuse. "People react in an emotional way to things like that. I'm not suggesting that it's not a normal reaction, but it creates a domino effect in society and can cause what is called 'moral panic'.
"It sets off a great anxiety, normal people get caught up in it; this is inherent in all these kinds of cases. It becomes difficult to be dispassionate about the innocence or guilt of the person accused."
The phenomenon of scapegoating was also probed - "I read a lot about it" - to determine what bearing, if any, that may have had on the creche case. But no matter what paths she went down and how much she looked into the case, Lynley says she couldn't find a shred of evidence that proved Peter