The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews


NZ Listener
Vol. 182 No. 3320
January 26 2002

Malady lingers on
Book Review by Michael Corballis

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

Michael Corballis, PhD (McGill), Professor of Psychology, University of Auckland, New Zealand, reviews Lynley Hood's book on the Peter Ellis/Christchurch Civic Creche Case.

This courageous book, which has already featured in the pages of this magazine, ia a detailed, step-by-step account of what happened in the Christchurch Civic Creche case. Lynley Hood has set this sorry affair in the context of the wave of hysteria over ritual child abuse that swept the Western world in the 1980s and early 1990s, and examined some of the historical precedents, notably the witch-hunts of the I6th and 17th centuries. One of the lessons to be learnt from her insightful introduction is that bouts of hysteria and moral panic have increased, if anything, with advances in technology and the trappings of enlightenment. With the spread of the Internet, things may get even worse.

There is a slippery dialectic surrounding matters of childhood sexual abuse, and the truth is too often obscured by postmodern rhetoric, cultural relativism and a disdain for quantitative methodology. Hood's appeal to "the cool, clear light of science" will come as a refreshing change to many observers. Some will, of course, regard this book as a mere polemic, inspired if not funded by some conspiracy to perpetuate child abuse or protect those guilty of it.

The sexual abuse industry has sometimes resorted to ad hominem (or ad feminam) attacks on its critics, but this book was not written by a person with known or imagined links to perpetrators of child abuse, nor was it written, heaven forbid, by a man. It is clear that Hood started out with an open mind, but became increasingly appalled at what she found. Although her indignation occasionally shows, typically as ironic asides, she has preferred on the whole to let the facts speak for themselves. The book is very thoroughly documented, and the conclusions are if anything understated. The most obvious victim of the Civic Creche affair was Peter Ellis, but the damage extended far wider, and I suspect that this hook scarcely begins to count the cost.

Hood is not unsympathetic to sexual abuse workers carried by the wave of hysteria. Many were idealistic young women with the best of intentions, motivated to improve society and overthrow oppression. It was not always easy to resist the apparently authoritative statements and slogans issued by some of the more zealous members of the industry, and it is alarming to see how easily the police and the judiciary succumbed. Yet one had only to look, as Hood did, at the credentials of the self-proclaimed experts, to discover that their claims were based on politics, not science.

Hood does not, of course, deny that sexual abuse occurs, although she does examine the sources of aims as to its prevalence. She makes it clear that those claims were progressively and grotesquely exaggerated. There are serious, still unanswered questions as to when affectionate touching becomes sexual, when sexual activity becomes abuse, and precisely what kinds of abuse are likely to cause serious psychological harm, and to whom. Whatever the answers to these questions, Hood's analysis demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt that immeasurably more harm has been created by the overly zealous attempts to stamp out sexual abuse than by the abuse itself, whether real or imagined. The Civic Creche is just one case in point. It was once considered a model of its type, a boon for working mothers and a safe place where children were both entertained and educated. Ellis comes across as an unusual, creative and occasionally outrageous man, once much loved by the children in his care. Now all is gone, and we are left with a society bitterly divided by suspicion and recrimination.

The worst of the hysteria may be over, but the malady lingers on.

There will be people, some of them in high places, who will prefer that this book be repressed, a memory not to be recovered. For the mental health of the nation, it should be compulsory reading for counsellors, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, the police, the judiciary and ministers of the Crown, but I suspect it won't be. And that's too bad. But don't take my word for it. Just read the book.

About the Reviewer:
Michael Corballis, PhD (McGill), is Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Perception, cognition, laterality, neuropsychology and evolution.