The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case
A City Possessed:
As I said I would, I have at last sat down and read Lynley Hood's book about the Christchurch Civic Creche case, A City Possessed. I bought the book, or at least my wife did, rather than borrowing it from the library. I am pleased we bought it, I would have felt guilty not having contributed at least in some small measure to Lynley Hood's earnings as recompense for the work involved. It took me a while to become immersed in the book, but once hooked I couldn't put it down, it was like reading a cracking who dunnit.
First, I have to hand it to Lynley, this book is a major tour-de-force of investigative journalism. Well written, thoroughly researched, coherently laid out, painstakingly prepared and with a conclusion that Ellis is innocent arising as a perfectly logical consequence of the material presented, hardly less so than the conclusion Kepler reached in his studies that the planets travel in elliptical orbits around the sun or the theory that Darwin was able to formulate that life evolved from one species to another, from his voyage in the Beagle.
It might be difficult for some readers to understand the sheer grit and determination that a writer like Lynley Hood has to show to get such a book completed and published, particularly here in New Zealand, where the market for such a book is limited, to state the obvious. As far as we are told, the only financial assistance that Lynley got for her years of work on the Creche case was a $9000 grant from the Arts Council of New Zealand. (I should mention here that I prefer to call this the Creche case, rather than say the Ellis case, as although it was Peter Ellis that was ultimately found guilty, we can't forget the four women co-workers also wrongly accused and all the workers in the Creche who just as egregiously lost their jobs and their reputations - they and their families also suffered a major injustice). All the costs of Lynley's research, her interviewing time, her travel, her copying, editing and her writing time would have to be met by the sale of a book in this limited market. So not only does Lynley Hood show great tenacity she also shows great optimism that the end result of her labours would bring her any rewards at all. It could also be claimed that the fact that Lynley was not beholden to anyone other than herself has been the best guarantee of a dispassionate and balanced examination of all the facets of this very complicated story. It was no a priori bias that caused Lynley to come to the conclusion she did. In addition of course, knowing as we do now the sheer unpleasantness of the depths of feelings this case aroused in Christchurch and elsewhere in New Zealand, she has had to brave the scorn of many of her fellow countrymen in negotiating this quagmire. But someone had to. It is undoubtedly true, of all the notable trials in New Zealand that over the years have made many people uncomfortable - and there have been quite a few - this has been the most contentious and the most worrying.
It must have been particularly difficult for Lynley, as an investigative writer, trying to preserve as much as she could the spirit of independent enquiry, the open mind, the fairness to both sides, that at the very outset she has had to forewarn the reader that her research had led her to a particular conclusion, and this was that there had been a major miscarriage of justice in this case. I say this because there is no doubt that this admission, however honestly held, and however predicated by the overwhelming evidence that she has so clearly delineated, will put off some readers from the very start. Particularly readers who would say that there was no miscarriage of justice, readers who are rightly concerned about a relatively high incidence of sexual abuse of children in New Zealand and readers perhaps whose own experience of abuse as a child would make Lynley Hood's quite pointed criticism of many abuse counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists, social workers and many abuse cases, rather hard to stomach. After all, there really is such a thing as sexual abuse of children, and some of the material presented fairly early in the book could, I think, be read as diminishing the importance of that fact. But Lynley was just being honest, and there can never be anything wrong about that, and she did quite clearly state also that she recognised that sexual abuse of children does occur. But I do wonder if Lynley had somewhat reversed some themes in her book, so that those who might have been put off reading further could have instead been led into the case, the time line, the development, the arguments, the personalities and the conclusion and than perhaps have wound the clock back to explain more exactly just how such a trial came to be held and the nature of the moral panic that preordained the outcome. Having said that the way the subject matter was ordered gave a very secure chronological and sociological underpinning to the story, and for myself, already sympathetic to the thesis, and not unduly surprised by the fundamentalist feminist nature of the sexual abuse movement of the times, this was a non-issue.
However, for some people that particular aspect of this book is of no importance at all, for they have made it very plain that they are never going to read it in any case. I am thinking here of Phil Goff, our justice minister (and a professional lawer). It's difficult to know what to say about such a blinkered man. But what makes this attitude even more extraordinary was Phil Goff's comment in 1997, when he was the opposition spokesman on law and order, that he had "always been uneasy about about the convictions", in particular that the more bizarre claims made by some children had not been put before the court by the Crown prosecutor because of their potential to damage the credibility of the alleged victims. The Creche case was probably the single most important case in New Zealand for the last thirty years. Phil Goff is paid an inordinate amount of money to do the job he does and to do it properly. If he refuses, out of sheer cussedness and impertinence, to read the single most important book about this single most important case, one that not only has profound implications for how evidence is presented in court, both ordinary evidence and expert evidence, implications as to how an investigation and a trial should be conducted and implications for the whole appeal process in New Zealand, then he is not fit to be minister of justice. To close his eyes, ears and his mind to this major miscarriage of justice is an insult to Lynley, to all those august people who signed a petition requesting an enquiry into all the issues that this case raised, and not just the limited enquiry of Justice Eichelbaum, and is an insult to the population of this country. We all deserve better. As long as the legal, judicial and parliamentary systems continues to close ranks and not give these major concerns the widest possible examination, we will continue to have major miscarriages of justice and our judicial system will be one that deserves international ridicule.
I have not in this review detailed much of Lynley's book. I have merely demonstrated that I now know a good deal more about the Creche case than I did, and that this book confirms my strong impressions about the failings in the Creche case. It also confirms my opinions about continued failings in the justice system and the appeal process which I have outlined earlier.
The best thing to do, if you want more detail, is to purchase the book yourself, and support an excellent New Zealand writer. But even more than that, by reading this book, you are contributing to to the process of democracy itself. And that is the case even if you don't agree that Peter Ellis is innocent. I say this because what ever your feelings about this particular case, the continued inability of the New Zealand justice system to examine and rectify its own poor practice and mistakes is of even greater concern, and it is by no means impossible that the next victim of this unremedied situation will be you.
However, if you would like a more detailed look , without reading the
whole book itself, there is a useful summary of some of the major points by
email@example.com at this address
A shorter review of A City
Possessed by Peter Hawes contains some memorable quotes
And it doesn't end there. I heard the Linda Clarke interview on the
National Programme on the 25th August 2003, with a sixteen year old boy named
"Nathan" (not his real name) and his mother, on which Nathan
complained of being abused by Ellis, and his mother saying "I would like
Peter to admit what he did ..... and show some repentence". I was
flabbergasted by this broadcast, and I remember thinking at the time that I hoped
that Radio New Zealand had some good solicitors. And they did need them,
Peter Ellis made a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, which
was upheld, all the allegations contained in the broadcast had to be publicly
withdrawn, an apology made, and costs awarded. The producers of this
programme hadn't even bothered to confirm that Nathan was at the creche at
the time Ellis was working there, in fact Nathan had left the creche at least
a year before Ellis had started work there, and Ellis had never been there in
any capacity prior to that time. Radio New Zealand was very lucky not to have
been sued for substantial damages, in many other countries it would have
been. I think it says something for the innate reasonableness of Peter that
it wasn't. You can read about this incident here.