The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case
A City Possessed:
Hood and A City Possessed
To call Lynley Hood (or as she's known in the media "Dunedin author Lynley Hood") grandmotherly would be misleading, despite the fact that, at 59, she is actually a grandmother. What would be more accurate would be to say that when I met her at her house in Kew, near St. Clair, last week I was intimidated. It's not that Hood is overbearing or dominating, it's just that her book about New Zealand's most notorious child abuse controversy - A City Possessed - is so meticulously researched, so compelling, so definitive that I expected her answer to any question I could ask to be: "Read my book".
Hood spent 8 years writing and finding a publisher for her book, the full title of which is A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case - Child Abuse, Gender Politics and the Law. As an examination of the arrest, trial, and conviction of Peter Ellis, and the witch-hunt circumstances that precipitated it, the book has been a lightening rod for controversy. No stranger to research, Hood had previously written Sylvia!, a biography of novelist and educational philosopher Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Who is Sylvia?, diaries from when she was writing Sylvia!, and Minnie Dean, an examination of the life and possible crimes of the notorious 'Winton baby farmer'.
Since its release A City Possessed has barely been out of the spotlight - at the prestigious Montana book awards earlier this year it scooped the Non-fiction and History categories and comfortably won the Readers' Choice Award.
A City Possessed puts the Ellis case against a tumultuous backdrop: Christchurch, a city infected by a witch-hunt fever; local police officers obsessed with uncovering the (most probably mythical) Great Christchurch Child Pornography Ring; and, a nationwide sexual abuse and counseling industry hijacked by feminists of the "all men are rapists" variety. To add to that, Hood chronicles the changes in sexual abuse legislation during the 1980s that led to the elevation of child abuse to the status of crimen exceptum - "a crime distinct from all others". The background information, some of which readers will find debatable - one Critic reader who came into the office last week called Lynley Hood New Zealand's Camille Paglia - is a welcome contextual primer for the evidence to come. And it's that evidence (much of which was presented during the original court appearance of Ellis and the Crèche women), and the accompanying analysis which makes A City Possessed so compelling.
"Legal authorities nationwide have said, 'Lynley Hood's got it right and the Government can't afford to ignore this book'," said Hood. "There's been no serious legal criticism of my analysis. The only negative response has been from [Val Sim, the Chief Legal Counsel at the Ministry of Justice]. She wrote this report at the direction of Phil Goff but it's such a crappy report - and it flies in the face of all the other legal responses - that I have to conclude that she's wrong."
According to Hood, Sim was given a brief to look for 'new evidence' in A City Possessed, a brief that misses the point entirely.
"The issue isn't new evidence, it's the evidence that there was in the first place that's the problem," Hood explained.
Broadly speaking, the book alleges widespread contamination of evidence due to faulty interview techniques on the part of the DSW interviewers attempting to elicit 'disclosures' from children and further contamination because of the actions of parents (with varying degrees of defensibility of motive). Furthermore, Hood's research paints a picture of an unreasonably biased courtroom and a judiciary unwilling (or unable) to correct its own mistakes.
The flamboyantly homosexual Peter Ellis worked at the Christchurch Civic Child Care Centre (a.k.a. the Civic Crèche) between 1986 and 1991. On November 20, 1991, a mother complained to Crèche supervisor Gaye Davidson that her four-year-old son (who had been attending the centre since he was 18 months old) had said that he did not like "Peter's black penis". The following day Ellis was suspended from work. A protracted police investigation followed, resulting in Ellis being brought to court on March 31, 1992, and then formally to trial (on 28 charges) on April 26 1993. In June that year he was convicted on 16 counts of child abuse and sentenced to a decade in jail. Between the time of his first court appearance and the start of his trial, four female Civic Crèche workers - Gaye Davidson, Marie Keys, Jan Buckingham, and Debbie Gillespie - were also charged and then discharged. Ellis' first appeal was mounted (and declined) in 1994. His second appeal was mounted (and declined) in 1999. In both 1998 and 1999 he refused parole on the grounds that to accept it would be to admit guilt. He was released in February 2000, having served seven years of his ten-year sentence. He has always maintained his innocence.
While for some time it was virtually taboo to doubt Ellis' guilt, it now seems that almost the reverse is true. A National Business Review-Compaq poll found in May that 51% of New Zealanders now believe Ellis was innocent, while only 25% consider him guilty.
The 13 counts that Ellis was convicted on referred to a total of seven children. Of those seven children five had parents who worked in the sexual abuse industry. To me, that seemed too unlikely to be coincidental.
"Those kids were trained from birth to scream blue murder if anyone touched them inappropriately and they never said boo," said Hood, when I raised the topic with her. Hood also cast doubt on the credentials of the Department of Social Welfare workers who interviewed many of the Crèche children. "The other extraordinary coincidence was that two of the three [Department of Social Welfare] interviewers were lesbian feminists ... and the third one at some stage was bonking [Detective] Colin Eade."
In a letter to The Christchurch Press in late August former Christchurch detective Colin Eade claimed that when he met Hood, just after the trial, she had already decided that Ellis was innocent. "Hood went on to produce a book where anything done by the victims and families were suspicious, while everything done by Ellis could be easily explained," he wrote.
Hood details her contact with Eade in the first chapter of A City Possessed, but I put the allegation of bias to her again.
"I didn't know what I was going to find. ... I was still writing Minnie Dean at the time and I was interested in the way the community got into an uproar over concerns about maltreatment of children that could be so great that they could unbalance the scales of justice. That was quite a separate issue from the guilt or innocence of whoever was being accused. In Minnie's case I actually found that she had smothered one of the children that she was accused of murdering. So I was prepared to find anything. But I was really interested in looking close up at the community reaction to these things. ... With Minnie Dean it was a hundred years distant but here was this wonderful opportunity to look at it close up."
A substantial portion of the book was written before the angle became apparent to her, said Hood.
"I'd written right up to the first allegation. I set out to try and make that make sense from the point of view of the woman who made it and I thought, 'I can't do this, It'd be intellectually dishonest of me to suggest that there's anything faintly sensible and reasonable from anybody's point of view about this allegation and the way it was blown up'."
Criticism of the way in which the Christchurch police, in particular Colin Eade, conducted the Civic Crèche investigation is a consistent motif of A City Possessed. When asked if the police could have had any more evidence, evidence that they might have held back on the grounds that it was inadmissible, Hood was contemptuous.
"When you look at what they used and how flaky it was, if they had anything faintly believable they would have used it. ... They even tried to get in the allegation where the boy said Peter Ellis had pulled off his willy with pliers and stuck it back on with sellotape. So if that was the best they could come up with, what did they have that didn't get in?"
"They managed to get a conviction that Ellis was party to an offense committed by an unknown man at an unknown place at an unknown time and date," Hood added. "If they could get that what else do you need?"
Hood's view of the new allegations Christchurch police raised against Ellis and former Crèche Supervisor Gaye Davidson in July follows a similar line of thought.
"The answer has to be put up or shut up. It's like the phantom new allegation: it's just what they've produced to try and make the case look credible."
If one follows Hood's analysis - and many readers, even those of a different ideological bent to Hood (a self-described "heterosexual, politically-liberal atheist"), will - the systematic problems that led to the Civic Crèche case still exist. In a speech to the Skeptics Conference in Christchurch earlier this month (at which she was presented with a 'Bravo Award') Hood outlined problems with ACC's counseling guidelines, problems with assessing veracity under current Children Youth and Family Service (CYFS) interviewing techniques, problems with sexual abuse legislation, and problems with the Court of Appeal's complaints resolution mechanism. The same problems are all explored in some depth, naturally enough, in the book.
Hood was also outspoken earlier in the year in calling for an end to the "stereotyping, demonising and persecuting of Justice Fisher", the judge accused of accessing pornography from his office computer. Similarly, Hood - who has never denied that sexual abuse exists but who is skeptical about its prevalence - has an opinion on the recent wave of allegations against Catholic priests.
"I think it's the same sex abuse hysteria that's driving it. That's why the Crèche case has to be confronted and dealt with - so we can see how to control these things. I mean, you can't stop people getting flaky ideas that may or may not have any foundation in reality but they have to be handled in a way that doesn't set off a firestorm that rips apart the whole community and damages lots of innocent people."
Hood doesn't pretend to know exactly how such hysteria should be dampened, either in general terms or for the Civic Crèche case.
"Nonetheless, I think it's important to challenge the pessimists who say: 'Nothing will be done about the Crèche case because it's too hard. The ripples spread too wide. Too many influential people will have their careers and reputations called into question'."
Hood seems to have been quite vocal in her calls for a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the Civic Crèche case but she denies her interest makes her an activist.
"I'm not campaigning for it, it's just that reporters say to me, 'Well, what do you think should happen now?', so I'm tossing up the idea as, 'This is what I think, let's discuss it and find a way forward'."
Hood cites the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an appropriate model for a method of re-assessing the Ellis case without assigning guilt. One thing she is adamant about is the need for any Royal Commission to be headed by a "robust overseas judge", someone not mired in personal politics and someone who would not have to work in New Zealand afterwards.
"Someone was telling me in the Arthur Allan Thomas case there was a crusty Australian judge [brought over for a Royal Commission]. At one stage he said to the Crown lawyer, 'Are you stupid?!' The lawyer was so offended that he marched off and said he wasn't coming back until the judge apologised. And the judge said, 'Alright, I apologise, now get on with it!' So that's the sort of thing we need."
Alternatively, Hood has a more droll solution to the Ellis case, one that may be more amenable to the Ministry of Justice.
"Of course the other option is Phil Goff could chuck Peter Ellis in the village pond and see whether he sinks or floats."