The Christchurch Civic Creche Case


Arnold Parr and Allison Stockton


University of Canterbury
Department of Sociology


Moral Panic or Claims-Making?
An Analysis of a Situation of Alleged Sexual, Satanic and Ritual Abuse

Arnold R Parr (Senior Lecturer) and Allison Stockton (Student)

Next day [after the meeting of Creche parents on 28 November 1991], a kid turned up at the creche and asked where the witches were. His dad had come home from the meeting and said there was a witch hunt going on

(McLoughlin, 1996:60, quoting a parent).

New Zealand's Christchurch Civic Creche situation of alleged sexual, satanic and ritual abuse of pre-school children by a male and several female staff members in the early 1990s has so far been largely analysed in terms of moral panic and hysteria. It is the purpose of this paper to investigate whether the sociological theory of moral panic systematically and adequately explains all the major developments in this situation of alleged child abuse by childcare professionals. In particular, does Cohen's theorising about moral crusaders and entrepreneurs adequately explain the part that a network of parents played in the Creche developments (1990)?

Moral panic theory, although not explicitly identified, definitely plays a part in the first publication by Barnett and Hill which deals with the Christchurch Creche situation (1993). In a later publication which also deals with the Creche developments, they focus upon Cohen's theory of moral panic and specifically the role of the media (Hill and Barnett, 1994: 236-243). Hysteria is the more frequently used theory by journalists, legal professionals and others to explain the involvement of some of the key parties and in particular the part played by a few parents. On the basis that a strong case can be sustained that moral panic theory incorporates hysteria into its explanations, we examine the Creche situation in terms of moral panic theory.

A chronological overview of major developments in this instance of alleged child abuse is presented at this point as the situation has been developing over a period exceeding ten years with the most recent development being an appeal to the Governor General in late 1997 for the pardon of the male childcare provider, Peter Ellis, who was convicted of 16 charges of abuse and sentenced to 10 years prison in 1993. This analysis looks at developments up to the time of the trial. This cut-off is not intended to imply that moral panic may not have influenced the trial and subsequent developments. Rather, it is to adopt the position that developments prior to the trial were extremely significant and deserve extensive analysis in their own right.

Chronology of Major Developments

September 1986             Peter Ellis works at the Creche to meet a two-week community service order for benefit fraud and then continues on working at Creche and becoming qualified as a childcare worker.

20 November 1991          A female parent (S1), a counsellor specialising in sexual abuse, makes the first allegation of sexual abuse of her son by Ellis to Gaye Davidson, Creche supervisor, by phone.

Ellis put on temporary leave.

25 November 1991          Mother S1 contacts Detective Colin Eade of the Christchurch police.

Son F of Mother S1 has videotaped interview by the Social Welfare Department - interviews involving at least 127 other children continue until November 1992.

28 November 1991          Meeting of the Creche Management Committee with Psychologist Sidey and Detective Eade present.

Meeting of all parents planned and organisation of it delegated to Mother S2.

2 December 1991            Parents' meeting

Mother S1 is emotional at the time of her entry and receives the support of some other parents including Mother C. Others mothers gather round S1.

John Gray, City Manager, and Detective Eade speak.

Psychologist Sidey from the Social Welfare Department specifies the symptoms of sexual abuse and tells parents not to directly question children about sexual abuse.

Early December 1991     A support group of mothers formed centering on S1, S2 and C.

20 December 1991          Detective Eade writes to the Management Committee stating that he found no evidence of abuse.

30 January 1992             Mother S2 has her child R, who had only been in the Creche while her mother picked up her son, interviewed by Social Welfare. R's evidence results in a diagnosis of indecent touching by Ellis.

23 March 1992                Article in The Press, Christchurch's only daily newspaper, about parent terror over abuse at the Creche.
Holmes, a prime-time national television news programme, deals with the Creche situation.

30 March 1992                Ellis arrested and charged with the indecent assault of Child R.

31 March 1992                A meeting organised by the Police and Social Welfare Department for Creche parents was held at Knox Hall.

Police, Sue Sidey and Karen Zelas, a psychiatrist, address the meeting.

Parents were told that all children who attended the Creche while Ellis was employed should be interviewed.

Parents were offered counselling for themselves, their children and other relatives.

Accident Compensation Corporation claim forms made available.

April 1992                      First charge laid against Ellis

3 September 1992          The Creche is abruptly closed on the advice of the Police and all 13 staff are made redundant.

Late September 1992      Four women staff members arrested:  Gaye Davidson, Jan Buckingham, Debbie Gillespie and Marie Keys.

November 1992              Depositions hearings held for Ellis and four other staff.

All the defendants are sent to trial.

May 1993                        Davidson,  Buckingham, Gillespie and Keys are discharged without coming to trial.

5 June 1993                    After a six week trial Ellis is found guilty on 16 counts involving seven children.

15 June 1993                  Ellis sentenced to 10 year prison term.

1994                               Court of Appeal decision

Ellis discharged on three charges involving Child S who claimed that she had lied about all her allegations.

The Court leaves his sentence unchanged.

December 1997              A petition seeking pardon for Ellis is sent to the Crown.

Cohen is widely recognised as one of the first to use moral panic theory as an explanatory tool and so we first consider the adequacy of his version of the theory. In a summary statement of his theory of moral panic Cohen claims that "the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people" (1990:9). Prior to this manning of the moral barricades, Cohen suggests that the mass media present a stylised and stereotypical view of the threat to societal values and that after the barricades are manned, socially accredited experts offer diagnoses and solutions. This processual model, although perhaps not intended to be strictly sequential in actualisation, does give primacy to the role of the mass media. Further, it identifies specific moral crusaders, e.g., editors, bishops, and politicians, as well as having a residual catch-all of "other right thinking people". In setting out this process, the theory does not provide a very adequate explanation of the development of moral panic in the Creche situation. It will be argued that some parents of children at the Creche were significant moral crusaders and that they were largely responsible for initiating police and media involvement in the moral panic process. Given the crucial part played by a few parents, it hardly seems adequate to treat them as "other right thinking people" as Cohen's theory would have us do.

For Cohen, moral panic generates action groups (1990:119). Action groups campaign and appeal about the moral panic issue. They pass resolutions, organise and sign petitions and mount deputations. One action group of the Cohen type clearly developed in the Creche situation. A support group for Ellis and the other four staff who were charged developed under the leadership of Winston Wealleans and Roger Keys, partners of accused staff members. It is far less clear whether any other of the parent groupings who became involved on an organised basis constitute the type of action group Cohen conceptualises. For a lengthy period of time a few parents operated as an intensely networked group who supported each other and tenaciously persisted with claims of abuse against Creche staff members. The key issue is whether this parent grouping was generated by the moral panic as Cohen claims action groups are or whether a networking of a few parents was crucially and centrally involved in creating the moral panic. Since there seems to be a case that some parents were agents that were in part responsible for the moral panic, Cohen's theory of action groups being the products of moral panic would thus not seem to adequately explain the part some parents played in actually creating the Creche situation.

Guilliatt's examination of repressed memory and ritual abuse in Australia leads him to conclude that "a witch-hunt is not a meaningless or random event. It reflects the latent fears of the society that spawned it. It is nurtured by those who wield political power and intellectual influence" (1996:261). The key participants according to Guilliatt are judges, lawyers, scholars and clergy. Guilliatt is thus following Cohen and tending to down-play the significance of the part played by some parents in the Creche situation.

Moral panic theory has been considerably extended and elaborated by Goode and Ben-Yehuda. "Much of moral panics literature," as Goode and Ben-Yehuda point out, "is devoted to tracing out the underlying motives of the various actors on the moral panics stage" (1994:32). With this approach as the central focus of moral panic theory, it is very pertinent to analyse whether the part played by parents in the Creche situation is adequately explained by moral panic theory.

Of the three versions of moral panic theory, the grassroots, elite-engineered and interest group (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994: 127-141), the interest group theory provides the most understanding and strongest explanation of the part that some parents played the Creche situation. In this theory interest groups are treated as playing an independent role in generating and sustaining moral panics; "we are saying that they are, themselves, active movers and shakers" (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994:139).

It is not easy to decide how many interest groups developed among the Creche parents. The parents certainly were divided into those who strongly alleged that abuse had occurred and those who were either sceptical or very convinced that abuse had not occurred. Also there was considerable parental involvement in the interest group which developed as a support and lobbying group for the accused staff members. This is the group referred to above under the leadership of Wealleans and Keys. At this point it is the interest group made up of some of those parents making allegations of abuse that is of concern. The number of parents involved was small, at least six and possibly no more than ten. Although few in number, they certainly can be most appropriately seen as shakers and movers.

Everything was kicked off by one parent who became a core member of this interest group. Mother SI, so identified in another publication (McLoughlin, 1996:60), complained to the Creche supervisor by phone on 20 November 1991 about Peter Ellis. She claimed that her son F while in the bath stated "I don't like Peter's black penis". The immediate and quick outcome of this initial complaint was the placement of Ellis on temporary leave. Mother S1 did not leave it at that. Five days later she contacted Colin Eade, a Christchurch police detective with training in the investigating of allegations of child sexual abuse. On the same day Mother SI had her son interviewed by a psychologist from the Social Welfare Department who was trained in interviewing suspected victims of sexual abuse. Then at an evening meeting of Creche parents on 2 December, Mother SI became the focus of attention at one point in the meeting. Upon entering she burst into tears. She was comforted by Mother C and several others. Out of this emerged a support group of Mothers C, S2 and others for Mother SI. This was the beginning of the parental interest group which was to play a very crucial part in the Creche developments.

This group became closely networked and a strong and influential interest group. Mother S1 remained central. She became "a virtual telephone-exchange of information, real and imagined, about the Civic and what supposedly went on there" (McLoughlin, 1996:62). Her Son F had several videotaped interviews with professionals from the Social Welfare Department and not once did he present any evidence that indicated that he had been sexually abused. Disregarding this, Mother SI, who was now fully in crusading mode, switched her son to another Creche where she soon made allegations of sexual abuse against a male staff member. Again evidence of this alleged abuse was not found upon investigation. As recently as July 1995 in a nationally televised documentary, Mother SI was still claiming that she had no doubts about the veracity of her son's black penis statement (Assignment, TV 1, 27 July 1995). The intensity and the persistence of the networking among parents in this interest group is captured well by McLoughlin.

SI discussed allegations with parent J, mother of L. Charges followed regarding L. Then J told the police she was concerned another child, SB, had been abused, which caused SB to be interviewed. S1, S2, J and CX had frequent discussions. C spoke to parent G, leading to G's son A being interviewed....S1 spoke to AJ who passed on concerns to AD, mother of children B and C who went on to become complainants. And on it went.

Although the interest group version of moral panic theory goes some way to explaining the part played by some parents, a stronger explanation is provided by Best's claims-making theory which is considered next in connection with the part played by the children (1990).

If moral panic theory can be considered to have limited adequacy in explaining the part played by parents in the Creche situation, it can be judged as even more inadequate in explaining the part played by the children who centrally figured in the developments. It is hard to conceive of these children as moral crusaders, nor did they constitute a moral panic action group or interest group. Perhaps their part in the developments needs to be constantly analysed in conjunction with their parents' involvement. Even when this is done, it would seem that moral panic theory is found wanting and that Best's theory about claims-making sheds more light on the situation (1990).

Many Creche children were involved with at least 127 undergoing Social Welfare Department videotaped interviews, most only once. However, some were interviewed several times and at least one six times. At the trial of Ellis evidence of seven children was presented resulting in the accused being found guilty on 16 counts. During the depositions, evidence from 21 children resulted in 48 counts against Ellis. The evidence of Child S, the oldest of the children, was used to make three charges. In 1994 during the Court of Appeal process, Child S said she lied and she retracted all her evidence. It should be noted that the parents of Child S did not have any regular, on-going contact with any other Creche parents and they were not participants in any interest group. Child N, the son of Mother S2 was interviewed five times. He was six years old at the time of the interviewing and his evidence led to four counts against Ellis. The complaints consisted of Ellis defecating on him, sticking a stick in his anus and sodomising him. However, N's claims during interviewing also involved satanic and ritual abuse. He reported the sacrifice of Andrew, a young child, and the circle incident in which Creche staff and others danced around naked Creche children who were kicked in the genitals.

These two children are classic examples of primary claims-makers in Best's theory (1990:87). Children, as primary claims-makers in situations of alleged sexual, satanic, and ritual abuse, play a very significant part in how things develop. The primary reason for this is that severe action may be taken against the accused abusers only on the basis of what the child claimants say. The claims of the children become paramount if not sacrosanct as each situation of abuse progresses. Legal action can be successful on the basis of claims, as in the case of Ellis, without any physical evidence, confessions or corroborating evidence for the claims. Hence, Best draws to our attention the importance of children as primary claims-makers in situations of alleged child sexual abuse that result in drastic actions occurring for the accused.

In the Creche situation a strong case can be made that some parents were not only the believers and disseminators of children's claims, but that they were primary-claims makers themselves. Mother SI is a case in point. Although she attributed the black penis statement to her son, after professional interviewing, the son did not provide any evidence about being sexually abused. In the case of Child N, parental coaching became so obvious that the professional interviewer from the Social Welfare Department even declined to interview the child on one occasion. His mother was certainly a primary claims-maker. In fact, she was linked into an international network of claims-making about sexual, satanic and ritual abuse. This is obvious as the claims that emanated from her through her son are carbon copies of claims made in similar cases of alleged abuse in America.

It is worth noting that this mother is similar to professionals such as psychologists who are involved in primary claims-making. The claims of these professionals have a global component. There is a remarkable similarity in the claims that develops internationally in the absence of virtually any physical evidence. Conference presentations, workshops and publications provide the basis for professionals becoming primary claims-makers in situations of alleged sexual, satanic and ritual abuse.

Be the claims-makers children, parents, professionals, or others, the really important fact is that "as claimants gain experience, their presentations become more sophisticated, even cynical. Claims-makers learn ways to mobilize and maintain public support; they learn how to get press coverage by constructing claims that are newsworthy; and they learn how to identify key policymakers and recognize the levers that can move policy" (Best, 1990:42).

In the remainder of this paper we move on to consider other parties that played major parts in the Creche developments and to examine how adequately moral panic theory explains their involvement. The media played an immense part in the alleged child abuse developments in the Creche situation and, as pointed out above, using moral panic theory Hill and Barnett have systematically analysed the media's part (1994:236-243). Documenting media involvement is a major strength of Cohen's version of moral panic theory (1990:161-166).

The police became involved in the Creche situation shortly after the first allegation of child abuse was made against Ellis. Their involvement grew and soon became a large scale investigation. Their part in developments was central. The police decided who was to be charged, what charges were to be laid and what counts to back up with evidence at the depositions. Moral panic theory predicts that the police participation involves broadening the scope of law enforcement, increasing its intensity and in the process taking overly zealous action (Cohen, 1990:86-87; Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994:27). There is strong evidence that moral panic theory explains the police activity in the Creche situation very well. Very early in their investigation the police were systematically looking for evidence of satanic and ritual abuse. They quickly broadened out the scope of the enquiry beyond sexual abuse. Further, the police decision to obtain warrants to search the homes of five female Creche staff members from an elderly Justice of the Peace rather than from a registrar or judge at the district court is an excellent example of an overly zealous action.

A number of professional experts played very significant parts in the Creche situation. Besides the Social Welfare Department staff who carried out the many videotaped interviews with Creche children, there were social workers, counsellors, and at least one psychologist and one psychiatrist who are attributed with major involvement. The psychologist was employed to do a report of the Creche situation for the Creche owners, the Christchurch City Council. This report was very critical of the Creche and some staff and Ellis, the alleged perpetrator of most of the abuse, in particular (Brett, 1993:58-59). The psychiatrist was consulted extensively and made numerous public statements about the symptoms of abuse and the appropriate measures for parents to take concerning suspected abuse of their children. Cohen's version of moral panic theory only briefly mentions these professionals as socially accredited experts and Goode and Ben-Yehuda do not have a category of actors which covers such participants (1994:24-29). If we turn again to claims-making theory, we find that Best treats these professionals as insider claims-makers in a competitive social problems marketplace. They are specialists who have the expertise about what should be done and are expected to handle the problem. The professionals, according to Best, belong to pressure groups which are trying to get others to respond to claims when a social problem is not yet well established. It can involve protecting or extending professional areas of jurisdiction as well as a competition for scarce resources (Best, 1990: 13-14, 78). This interesting interpretation of the part played by professionals takes the analysis well out of the field of moral panic and involves reformulation of the developments along quite different lines. The area of child abuse in Best's theory becomes a base for further claims-making as have other areas in which children have been threatened and along the way each area of threat has "benefited from the support of a growing number of professionals and laypeople already concerned with child protection" (1990:180, emphasis added).

The Accident Compensation Corporation was another party that came into the Creche situation. In the early 1990s the Commission had the policy of paying lump sums of $ 10,000 on the basis of claims of sexual abuse. At a large meeting of Creche parents on 31 March 1992, Accident Compensation Corporation claim forms were distributed. ACC involvement was also initiated in other ways. A City Council social worker presented one set of parents with ACC claim forms during a home visit and informed them that they should submit quickly because lump sum payments were soon to be discontinued. The same parents were further advised to claim now and make up their mind later about whether they had a basis for claiming. ACC paid more than $500,000 to Creche claimants. Some parents claimed for each incident of alleged abuse against a child. One child was the basis of five claims and another four. ACC paid on the basis of some allegations even when charges were not laid (McLoughlin, 1996:62).

Goode and Ben-Yehuda's version of moral panic theory in part accounts for ACC involvement by analysing the motives of the actors in terms of moral and material interests (1994:124). Motives may centre on deeply and genuinely felt values and action taken on moral grounds. In contrast, material interests may prevail with the actor standing to gain something of value such as power, wealth or ownership of resources. A clear case can be made that the ACC applications by parents could be associated with motives where material interests predominated. It is, however, more difficult for the theory to account for the up-front, if not zealous manner, in which ACC claims-making was presented to the parents. The theory does not really explain why organisers of the large parents' meeting and then professionals such as social workers were so instrumentally and insistently involved in the ACC claims-making process.

In conclusion, moral panic theory is found wanting when it comes to an explanation of two of the central parties in the this situation of alleged child abuse: (1) the parents and their children as complainants and (2) the alleged abusers, staff of the Creche and the mother of one staff member. Inadequate explanation of the nature of involvement of the children and parents is most serious. After all, it was parents and children who initiated the situation by making claims of abuse and it was children and parents who persistently and consistently pursued claims-making with the police, professionals in the child protection area and with the media, often in a very public manner but never in a completely open way as the law requires name suppression of both children as complainants and their parents. Best's claims-making theory goes a considerable way to explaining the part that children and parents played in this situation of alleged child abuse (1990). First and foremost, these participants need to be seem as claims-makers and the process of claims-making needs to be most closely scrutinised by anyone who has to deal in any way with allegations of child abuse.

Turning to the other party, neither moral panic theory or claims-making theory as currently formulated has much capacity to explain the part that the alleged perpetrators of abuse played in the Creche situation. This party included several female staff, four of who were charged along with the male staff member, Ellis. The allegations even broadened out to include the mother of Ellis. Moral panic theory speaks of the creation of folk devils who are the personification of evil (Cohen, 1990:41-43). There is, however, little evidence that any of the alleged perpetrators came close to being seen as folk devils. Even Ellis cannot be adequately explained in this way. For Ellis to be seen as a folk devil would entail all representatives of the category of male early childhood worker being demonised as folk devils. Such is not the case in New Zealand society.

Both moral panic theory and claims-making theory are social constructionist in orientation and this theoretical orientation neglects or downplays the significance of the activity or lack of activity of real embodied persons. This is not to suggest that either theory could not be expanded to incorporate the alleged perpetrators as playing an integral part in developments, nor is it to suggest that this party needs to been seen as playing anywhere close to a central stage part in the process of claims-making about abuse. However, for a strong, comprehensive explanation, the alleged perpetrators do need to be taken into account in a really adequate theory. At this stage, both moral panic theory and claims-making theory require further extension.

Finally, an assessment of moral panic theory does need to consider Cohen's claim that he pays "less attention to the actors than to the audience" (1990:27). From our analysis of the Creche situation in Christchurch in the early 1990s, it becomes clear that actors as well as audience do significantly play a part in developments over alleged child abuse. Goode and Ben-Yehuda certainly redress this issue by dealing explicitly with actors in situations of moral panic, but there formulation does not fully account for all the actors who had a strong influence in the Creche developments. So, Cohen's theory can be viewed as one-sided and the elaboration of it by Goode and Ben-Yehuda as needing to be pushed even further.


Barnett, Jenny and Hill, Michael, 1993. "When the devil came to Christchurch", Australian Religion Studies REVIEW, 6(2):25-30.

Best, Joel,   1990.   Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Brett, Cate, "Beyond the Civic Creche Case", North and South, September 1993, 54-70,

Cohen, Stanley, 1990.  Folk Devils & Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Assignment, "Ellis through the looking glass", TV 1, 27 July 1995.

Goode, Erich and Ben-Yehuda, Nachman, 1994. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, Oxford, Blackwell.

Guilliatt, Richard, 1996. Talk of the devil: Repressed Memory & Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt, Melbourne, Text Publishing.

Hill, Michael and Barnett, Jenny, 1994. "Religion and deviance", in Paul F Green, ed., Studies in New Zealand Social Problems, Palmerston North, Dunmore, 231-249.

McLoughlin, David, "Second thoughts on the Christchurch Civic Creche case: Has justice failed Peter Ellis?" North & South, August 1996, 54-69.

Topp, Chris, "Parents in terror of abuse discovery", The Press, 23 March 1992, 1.