Ian Freckelton, Barrister,
Hood, well-known to readers from her 1988 work about New Zealand writer and
educationalist, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, and her 1994 work about the only woman
to be hanged in
A City Possessed is a substantial work
indeed, running to some 672 pages. It is a scholarly tome, in the sense that
it locates the
was in 1991 that arguably
The Legal Process
All five accused persons were committed for trial after an 11 week preliminary hearing but by the time the case reached the High Court, only Ellis remained, facing 28 charges involving improprieties alleged to have been committed against 13 children. Three charges were dismissed in the course of the trial. After a trial of 29 days, a jury of nine women and three men found Ellis guilty on three counts of sexual violation, eight counts of indecent assault and five counts of performing, or inducing children to perform, indecent acts. He was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. Fourteen months later, a child described by the Crown as "compelling and believable" retracted her allegations, saying she had lied because she had thought that was what her mother had wanted her to say. This resulted in the Court of Appeal quashing the convictions for the three counts relating to the child but upholding the remaining 13 convictions and declining to interfere with the sentence imposed upon Ellis (R v Ellis (1994) 12 CRNZ 172). In 1999 a further appeal was launched to the Court of Appeal which convened in a bench of five (R v Ellis  NZCA 226). It heard new evidence and fresh arguments but declined to interfere with its previous decision.
2000 the Attorney-General commissioned the former Chief Justice, Sir Thomas
Eichelbaum, to investigate "matters relevant to the assessment of the
reliability of the children's evidence". He enlisted the assistance of
further experts from
is fair to say that the Christchurch Creche saga has polarised and unnerved
New Zealanders, and many in other countries, for the better part of a decade.
Its subject matter is salacious, emotive and frightening. The idea that a
group of workers at a place where parents entrust their young children could
have preyed upon them sexually is terrifying. So too is the potential that
circumstances may have children having
made extremely serious allegations against an innocent man. However, the
allegations raised in
Hood's approach is far from the "disinterested observer" style of documentary. She even became caught up as a player in the final appeal to the Court of Appeal as lawyers representing Ellis sought access to tapes of interviews that she conducted in preparation for the manuscript. The years that Hood has devoted to research on the case have left her with strong views which repeatedly intrude into the text, sometimes with a journalistic propensity to view things as occurring with inevitability, sometimes with a disappointing tone of sarcasm and bitterness.
Some readers will find that Hood's passionately felt views about a miscarriage of justice detract from her credibility as a reliable historian. However, she is open about her stance. Hood recites that when she commenced her research, the key question upon which she focused was the extent to which the staff at the Centre had been involved in child sexual abuse. However, ultimately she became convinced that no illegality whatever had occurred - "Instead, I found convincing evidence that more than 100 Christchurch children had been subject to unpleasant and psychologically hazardous procedures for no good reason, and that a group of capable and caring adults with no inclinations towards sexual misconduct with children had had their lives ruined as a result. The disquieting outcome drew my focus from the creche to the forces that had brought about its downfall. By the time I came to write this book the key question I faced was this: how on earth did the complainant families, the child protection services, the justice system and the government get it so wrong?" (p 33-34.)
Hood uses the Christchurch Creche case as a vehicle for commenting widely on related issues, sometimes too widely and not as informedly as might be desirable. An example is her less than accurate analysis of the current professional view of post-traumatic stress disorder: "Because this grab-bag of symptoms is as unoriginal as it is all-encompassing, many mainstream psychiatrists regard PTSD as a fashionable collage rather than a genuine disorder. . . . This 'post-traumatic' explanation encourages disaffected individuals to blame their troubles on some past trauma, even if no objective evidence of any such trauma can be found". (p 64.) There is a degree too to which she unfairly singles out psychiatrist Dr Karen Zelas for adverse comment. However, this is a view with which reasonable people could disagree. More importantly, perhaps, this reviewer felt that at times Hood's concerns about over-diagnosis of child sexual assault led her to minimise the incidence of the phenomenon and the seriousness of its sequelae, particularly for adults who do not display primary or overt later symptomatology. However, the bottom line of Hood's plea is for calm, scientific evaluation of complaints of childhood abuse. Few would disagree that this is the appropriate environment within which serious criminal allegations should be assessed.
A City Possessed has two particular
strengths. The first is its chronicling of events leading up the disclosures
made by the Christchurch Creche children. Hood meticulously recounts the
visits of persons to
The second strength of the book is that it makes public many of the words of the children. One seriously recounted the presence of a giraffe in his house. Another detailed her memories of being in an incubator when she was born. Another told of being thrown down trapdoors at a Masonic Lodge and put in coffins which were buried in graveyards. He said too that Ellis had anally penetrated him, "made him do poohs in the bath" and eat them, and that someone put a needle up his penis which made it bleed. In spite of these and a myriad of other bizarre and suspicious allegations, no corroboration ever became available. Yet the allegations were acted upon, believed, and resulted in convictions. Hood takes the reader inside the investigative process, the trials and even the appeals. It is an absorbing experience. Doubtless, though, the accuracy of her observations and her accounts of the various stages of the investigation and of the legal initiatives will be debated at length.
To a degree, the final section of the book, which is devoted to a critique of the Eichelbaum Report, is unsatisfying. It has the feeling of having been added on at the end by an author keen after many years to achieve closure on the project. This is not to say that the points made in the chapter are without merit, simply to observe that the chapter does not constitute a comprehensive attempt to pull together the many different threads that had been woven in the preceding pages. The opportunity to do more than make the easy call for a Royal Commission is lost and thereby the chance to make constructive suggestions as to how a repeat of the Christchurch Creche case could be avoided in the future.
The Christchurch Creche case and Hood's analysis of it highlight the difficulties posed for the criminal investigative and justice systems generally by allegations of physical and sexual abuse made by children. It is now apparent that considerable care needs to be employed in evaluating the "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome" coined by Roland Summit in the 1980s. So too does circumspection need to be employed in uncritically believing allegations proffered by children, particularly in circumstances where their "memories" may have been contaminated or when they are made in the course of matrimonial disputes or in the context of ritual abuse allegations. Finally, caution needs to be brought to any suggestion that because there is over-representation of certain kinds of self-harming or damaged behaviours in the wake of sexual and physical abuse, those who display such behaviours have been abused, or abused as they allege.
Child sexual abuse is one of the most confronting phenomena for all of us who work in the criminal justice system. It is frightening, distressing and corrosive for all who come in contact with it. It has also been the subject, as Hood establishes, of a series of moral panics in western societies in the course of the 1990s, as well as in earlier times. The impact of such panics can be to reduce the capacity of child protection investigators, police and even prosecution authorities to evaluate evidence scientifically, calmly and objectively. Certainly, child centre cases internationally have yielded embarrassing perspectives for 15 years, with a series of bizarre and unfortunate miscarriages of justice taking place.
A City Possessed will take its
place as a major account of a case that gripped popular imagination for
nearly a decade. Undoubtedly, this book will play an important role in
ensuring that the fallout from the saga does not end prematurely. It should
focus our attention upon necessary reforms. There is much to be learned
internationally from how
In the end, nothing can remove human fallibility when subjects as sensitive as multiple sexual abuse are canvassed. When a criminal investigation is fanned by understandable panic by parents and sensationalist media coverage, there is always the potential for the processes to miscarry. When early investigations go awry, when contamination of evidence is not identified at the first juncture, the difficulties can become self-generating and the potential grows for misevaluation and for public anxiety to generate decisions based upon fear, prejudice and suspicion. The legal way back from such initial decisions is not easy. Appellate Courts are not and should not be an opportunity for retrials.
A City Possessed is a well-constructed
and exhaustively researched account of one of the most important episodes in
Hood's contribution to understanding of the complexities of investigation into sexual abuse, in particular ritual sexual abuse allegations, is substantial. A City Possessed is a gripping and controversial analysis of a legal and social phenomenon that has the potential to confront all of us. The challenge left to us is what can be done to ensure that the errors made and the human trauma caused by the Christchurch Creche controversy will not be repeated. A City Possessed should be compulsory reading for lawyers in the criminal and family law areas, child protection workers and mental health professionals. It is likely also to be devoured within the general community still trying to come to grips with the legacy of a decade of headlines about Ellis and the Christchurch Creche. Hood's courage in robustly presenting her version of the tale and in seeking to learn from it should inspire all of us to reflect soberly and thoughtfully about how child protection, criminal investigation and legal procedures can be improved. Hard cases, researchers' persistence and independence, and difficult issues provide opportunities which should not be lost.