The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

A City Possessed - by Lynley Hood - Index

A City Possessed - Reviews

Issue 5 Vol 2  June 2003

The Fall guy
Book review by Anne Mathers

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

Reading Lynley Hood's exact and exacting account of the Christchurch Civic Creche child abuse case, you imagine it must have taken a person of perfect composure and delicate negotiating skills to get it written.

The case of four female and one male crèche worker charged with horrific sexual abuse of numerous children in their care divided the small city in the early 1990s.

Charges against the women were thrown out, but Peter Ellis, the sole man charged with the crimes, spent seven years in prison, and was released in early 2000 as one of New Zealand's most notorious child sex offenders.

Ellis always maintained his innocence, even going so far as to refuse parole hearings because it would be a form of admission. Hood allies herself with him from the first and uses A City Possessed to systematically dismantle the case against Ellis.

It is difficult to feel happy about Ellis' conviction after learning the details of the unconventional investigation.v

Hood carefully records the leading interview techniques the child complainants were subjected to, the suppression at trial of their more unbelievable claims and the complete lack of any physical evidence.

But Hood's target is not just a group of zealous Cantabrian parents. More boldly, she argues that the real blame for the affair lay with a hysterical international industry of child sexual "experts", who were responsible for a string of similar cases.

The Civic Creche case indeed fits easily into a string of bizarre cases that rocked communities from isolated British islands to urban California. Hood even goes so far as to begin her book with a history of witch-hunts.

No wonder that the woman who placed Christchurch right next door to Salem on a world map of shameful persecution wryly sports a T-shirt with the slogan 'I survived the loneliest road'.

The shirt is revealed as she stands to address the audience at the recent Auckland Readers and Writer's Festival.

Immediately after she rises, she slips gracelessly off the rear of the raised speakers' platform.

It is the beginning of a performance that forces one to rethink just how this woman managed to write A City Possessed.

Reading her book, in all its meticulous 800-odd pages, conjures up a picture of a forceful, composed person.

Yet her nervous, pedantic replies on this occasion teeter on the brink of dullness as she carefully details her struggles to get her book published the way she wanted it.

Retreating afterwards from the airless underground rooms of the festival, an epiphany presents itself; you don't go into a small city and write a book about its most controversial and divisive criminal case through dexterity and charisma.

What it takes is the kind of careful, plodding determination that is illustrated in Hood's appearance at the festival.

Hood often refers to the fact that she is a grandmother during her talk, and she is indeed the kind of grey-haired, comfortably dressed woman that abounds in Christchurch.

The "Loneliest Road" T-shirt is worn under her zip-up polar fleece. The phrase refers to Route 50 in Nevada, where Hood was travelling when she was at her darkest point with the book.

That low-point was when her editor wanted to make drastic cuts and changes to the book; Hood eventually parted from him victorious.

The book also documents her near-arrest for withholding a taped interview from the courts - an episode she refers to as "Granny goes to jail".

With these personal struggles and the looming controversy at the release of the book, it must indeed have been a lonely road.

Lynley Hood was taking on a huge topic when she embarked on A City Possessed, and the size of the task is reflected in the heft of the resulting book.

A percentage of the work is dedicated to setting the case in an era where feminism, a "believe-the-victim" ethos and new psychological theories around sexual abuse coincided with devastating consequences.

Hood is obviously angry about what she sees as foolish sexual abuse "witch hunts" and her book is a campaign of sorts against the movement.

Her strong feelings on the subject are equally obvious in both the book and in her demeanour.

It's hard to underestimate the impact the Civic Creche case had on Christchurch.

And Hood could not have expected a pleasant experience when she went up to the city's deepest wound and poked it with a stick.

But despite her diffident character, the author obviously has a backbone of steel and real belief that A City Possessed needed to be written.

As well as firmly believing that Ellis is an innocent man, Hood wants to see the beliefs that saw him convicted stopped.

As she told the festival audience: "If the courts would tighten up their acts, then the psychologists would find their industry of convicting people would start to dry up."

It's an unpleasant job, but we should all be glad that someone was willing to do it.