The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews


Journal of the Australia and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
April 2003

A City Possessed
Book Review by Lisa Brown, Sydney Australia

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

I found this to be a very interesting book. At times it felt like reading a ‘whodunit 'novel, but because of the length of the book (672 pages)and the exhaustive detail provided by the author, at other times the tempo of the book did drag.

Having conducted research in the long-term sequelae of child sexual abuse, I was interested to discover whether the book would change any of my current perspectives. In focusing on the investigation of New Zealand's largest and most controversial case of allegations of sexual abuse occurring in a Christchurch crèche, in the early 1990s, author Lynley Hood offers a fascinating insight into the case. Describing herself as a research associate with an interest in child care, the author declares her position at the outset, writing that her investigation into the crèche sexual abuse allegations led her to believe that eccentric and flamboyant male childcare worker, Peter Ellis, and a number of other female childcare workers were victims of a modern ‘witch hunt '. Hood suggests that the allegations developed at the height of the ‘believe the children 'movement in the child sexual abuse field developing in the 1980s, mixed with the risks of overly directive interviewing, the misuse of psychiatric testimony and over zealous policing and prosecuting. These all lead to what she describes as a modern form of mass hysteria. There is an interesting early chapter discussing the witch hunts of various ages, the phenomenon of mass hysteria and urban legends.

The book, in sometimes excessive detail, looks at the historical background, the subculture of Christchurch and the very well respected crèche, which became the centre of major allegations of child sexual abuse of multiple victims and of a ritual abuse type. Hood avoids the trap of obvious bias or zealotry in either direction. There is also an interesting touch when the author becomes caught up in the court appeals process and is faced with the dilemma of whether to reveal confidential information gained in her many interviews with those involved.

The main protagonist, Peter Ellis, serves a number of years in prison for the offences, but has continued to strenuously claim his innocence, even when several attempts at appeal did not clear his name. There is also the interesting sideline of a College of Psychiatry member who provided expert witness testimony at the trial. As a strong ‘believer 'of the potential damage of child sexual abuse for children, the book certainly raised a great deal of thought in my mind, in particular whether the widely touted prevalence figures for abuse are in fact correct and whether the pendulum has swung ‘too far 'in terms of lack of scientific objectivity in investigating abuse allegations.

The book would be of interest to any psychiatrist working with child sexual abuse victims, either directly or indirectly, and possibly also to adult psychiatrists who treat those who suffer the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. However, I think the book has an even broader appeal, with its emphasis on the difficulties of psychiatric testimony and looking at the broader social issues of mass hysteria. The book is long and at times arduous to read, but there are plenty of fascinating chunks within it and I came away having a sense of a new perspective on the issues involved.

Whether or not you agree with author Lynley Hood's views on the falseness of the allegations is not the point of reading this book; the book effectively raises questions that anyone in the area of child sexual abuse will find interesting and challenging.