A number of child sexual and ritual abuse panics were probably a by-product of a
conference held in Christchurch in 1991-SEP. That conference included a workshop of
Satanic Ritual Abuse which was run by a member of the Ritual Action Group.
Immediately after the conference, the print and TV media published articles and
broadcast documentaries which raised public awareness and concern over ritual
abuse of children.
New Zealand appears to have become a focal point for multi-victim child
sexual abuse cases during the 1990s. Three reasons might be:
Starting 1985 in New Zealand, child molesters
could be convicted on the uncorroborated
testimony of young children.
Prosecutors seem to have willing to accept the testimony of small
children, no matter how physically impossible the acts were and in spite of
the absence of physical evidence that would have had to be present if the acts
had taken place.
Parents of abused children who claim to have been sexually abused can apply for
government awards (typically NZ$ 10,000; about $7,000 in US funds). No charges or
convictions are required as proof that the events really happened.
The Peter Ellis case
Peter Ellis, 35, was convicted in 1993 of sexually abusing 7 small children at the Christchurch
Civic Child Care Centre (commonly known as the Christchurch Civic Crèche) where
he worked along with 11 female employees. 1,2 After one of the most extensive and
expensive police investigations in New Zealand history, he was accused of collecting a
number of children, bussing or driving them in a car to another location, sadistically
abused them, returning them to the Centre, swearing them to secrecy, cleaning them up and
calming them down so that they showed no signs of the abuse when they were
observed by other staff and by their parents. He was also accused of
sexually abusing children in the center's toilet area and in other locales.
The triggering complaint in this case was lodged by a therapist who specialized in
sexual abuse problems, had a history of mental illness, and believed that Peter Ellis may
have sexually abused her son. The complaint was made 17 days after the above mentioned
conference. Her son never actually disclosed any abuse, either to his mother or during
many interviews by the Children & Young Person's Service of the New Zealand
Department of Social Welfare. The mother transferred her son to another day care
center and subsequently accused a male worker at that center of also abusing her son.
In 1992-MAR, Ellis was arrested on a single charge which was later dropped for lack of
evidence. A meeting was held of parents who had had children in the crèche. A social
worker gave a list of abuse symptoms: bedwetting, nightmares and tantrums. These
are common events
with both abused and non-abused children. Parent support groups were then formed.
Networks were established to exchange rumors and suspicions. Some parents, without
training in interview techniques, intensely and continually interrogated their children,
trying to get them to disclose abuse. Children started disclosing stories of bizarre abuse,
including rituals involving gravesites, both human and animal sacrifices, urine, and
feces. Allegations included:
Forcing one boy to kill another boy named Andrew in a Satanic ritual.
(No boy was
reported missing in town.)
Inserting items into the children's body cavities.
Being forced to stand naked while female crèche workers danced around them.
(No workers could recall any of these events.)
Being placed in ovens.
Being taken through tunnels, inside ceilings, across rooftops and through
Being suspended in cages from the ceiling.
Having lighted paper stuck into their anus.
Being hit by Ellis with the result that the child's knee was bruised. (Ellis was in jail at the time the abuse
Ellis engaging in sexual intercourse with a female staff member on the toilet floor
while the children watched. (Ellis is gay.)
By September, Ellis and four of his female co-workers were arrested. The
charges against two of his co-workers was not based on any hard evidence. It was
not even based on a verbal disclosure by a child. It was based on an
interviewer's interpretation of the manner in which a child played with dolls.
The police searched intensely for trap doors, tunnels, cages, and ritual
abuse paraphernalia. Included in the investigation was the Civic Child Care
Centre, the local Masonic Lodge, Ellis' mother's house, and other
addresses suggested by complaining parents. Trap doors and tunnels were
obviously inspired by the McMartin Pre-school hoax.
They found nothing, except for an Asian mask in Mrs. Ellis' home. They seized
this as potential ritual abuse paraphernalia.
The hearing began in 1992-NOV. There were 45 charges involving 20 children against
Ellis and an additional 15 charges against both Ellis and his co-workers. By the time that
the trial started, the most ridiculous and bizarre charges had been dropped. Charges against
the women were then all dropped. Twenty-eight charges against Ellis involving 13 children remained. Three charges collapsed
during the trial when the children recanted. One of the children testified that "Cathy
[an interviewer] taught me what Peter [Ellis] did". The defense attorney wanted
to show many interrogation tapes to the jury. His theory was that if the jury saw children
disclosing both memories of conventional sexual activity and of truly bizarre activity,
then the jury would realize how unreliable the children's testimony was. The judge
severely restricted the tape viewing, thus crippling the defense. Ellis is an openly gay
person; it is not known how his homosexuality affected the trial.
Ellis was found guilty of 16 charges involving 7 children. Half of the charges
concerned children whose parents were counselors, social workers or therapists.
At least 127 children were interrogated from 1 to 6 times in interviews lasting from 1
to 2 hours. A common pattern was that:
During the first interview, the child denied that
any abuse occurred
During subsequent interviews, disclosures were made of an increasingly
Some detectives believed that dozens of children had been abused over a
five year period - perhaps as many as 80. A local newspaper article claimed up to 200!
Three of the charges (all of which produced guilty verdicts) related to the abuse of
"Lucy" (a.k.a. "S"). There is some confusion over the
identity of this girl.
She was described by the prosecution as being "compelling and believable" .
Her allegations developed according to pattern whose elements are commonly seen in MVMO
Lucy was either 5 or 9 when the interviews were made (sources
She said that she had earlier disclosed abuse to other workers at the center, but none of them
could recall any such report.
She had not mentioned the abuse for years, until after the case went public.
The initial disclosure occurred when her mother asked suggestive questions and described
Ellis in a negative light.
Her first disclosure matched the scenario of one of her mother's initial questions.
The Department of Social Welfare repeatedly interviewed Lucy in six sessions,
years after the event.
During the first session, she asked 14 times that the interview stop.
When her statements did not fit the details of the accepted scenario, they were ignored.
Anatomically correct dolls were used improperly and produced conflicting stories.
These dolls have since been shown to facilitate false accusations.
The interviewers used leading questions.
The interviewers repeated questions. This often convinces a child that her
truthful answer is not acceptable. The child will often try a different response in order to
satisfy the adult.
There were some logical problems with the trial testimony:
Photographs of the interior of the crèche were suppressed by the
prosecution. According to author Lynley Hood, the photos show that many
of the events described by the children could not have taken place.
Lucy and others had no physical signs of abuse; the only evidence was the children's
Many of the activities that she described were not physically possible.
The toilets where she said the touching occurred were visible from the main indoor play
area where parents and staff were continually present. Yet none of them observed any abuse. Ellis would have had to abuse the children with the toilet doors open. It is
inconceivable that frequent abuse could have occurred undetected.
Lucy gave conflicting accounts of the state of her clothing, the state of Ellis' clothing,
the location, and the perpetrators during her interviews.
One child retracted their story after the trial.
Transporting the children to another site, abusing them, returning them,
settling them down, and cleaning
them up had to be done within 90 minutes (even if no safety factor were allowed). Nobody
saw him drive; he did not own a car; he can't drive.
The children's parents visited the crèche at random times during the day, yet saw nothing. One local
dentist in particular would often drop in unannounced.
There were many student teachers at the crèche and almost a dozen other employees;
saw anything that would confirm the children's stories.
The children said that Ellis threatened them with harm if they told the secrets. But
experts agree that such threats make disclosure of abuse more likely. The probability that
none of the children would have disclose abuse without prodding is extremely small.
On a TV New Zealand program, Dr. Stephen Ceci's, Professor of Psychology from
Cornell University reviewed the interviews, which had been videotaped. He is
world's leading expert in this field. 14 He said that the interviews were
professionally conducted but unsound and could have led to incorrect statements. He felt
that they were typical of interviews conducted in the US during the late 1980's. His main
points of criticism were:
The interviewers did not examine alternative explanations for the children's allegations.
They asked repeated, direct questions; this often leads to different conflicting answers.
The children reported highly implausible events that were never checked.
Dr. Ceci concluded "In my view it is very unlikely that you could persuade
children to be silent about that [abuse] for long periods and also to exert affection for
the perpetrator which many of these children did. So on that level I'm exceedingly
skeptical. I don't think the bizarre stuff happened. Does that mean nothing happened?
Well, I simply don't know. No one else knows either except God and Mr. Peter Ellis."
Ellis' lawyer, Graham Panckhurst said: "The single allegation trigger, parents
painting the person as a bad person, the swapping of information between parent, the
growth of allegations, and the combination of plausible and highly implausible allegations
were all present in the civic creche case." These are common features
seen in MVMO
cases throughout North America and Europe.
A complicating factor in this case is a claim by a woman that that Ellis had abused her
two children while she was involved in a relationship with him. Workers at the center
found her claims strange, because she had frequently visited Ellis at the
crèche after the
relationship ended. Ellis claimed that she also continued to visit him with her children
after the relationship ended.
Ellis is clearly innocent of child abuse. His guards sat with him
during the trial and spread the word at the prison that Ellis was innocent. As a result, he
was not subjected to the beatings that many people convicted of childhood sexual
abuse have suffered. The staff at the crèche were awarded NZ$ 1 million (about
$700,000 in US funds) for damages when
the center was abruptly closed on 1992-SEP. Parents from 40 families were awarded a total
of more than NZ$ 500,000 (about $350,000 in US funds). The crèche has since reopened.
Parents remain deeply divided over whether any abuse actually happened.
The "smoking gun" letter:
In 1996-JUL, information about a "smoking gun" letter was released by a New
Zealand journalist. 3It destroys the credibility of 7 of Ellis' 13 remaining
convictions. During research into the case, David McLoughlin found a letter dated
1992-AUG-28, a time when the investigation was at its peak. It was allegedly written by psychiatrist
Dr. Karen Zelas to Detective Sergeant John Ell of the Christchurch police. Dr. Zelas was
the supervisor of the social workers who performed the children's interviews. She was the
prosecution's expert witness during the trial. Some people believe that the letter shows
that Dr. Zelas knew that the evidence against Ellis was tainted by massive parental
questioning of the children. Dr. Zelas allegedly wrote:
"It is clear that L's parents elicited disclosures of abuse by Peter Ellis by
highly leading questioning. N's brother and parents did the same. In N's case, the parents
subjected him to intensive interrogation pertaining to ritual abuse between the three
August interviews which were on consecutive days. N would then disclose in the next
interview with Sue Sidey [the principal welfare interviewer] the information elicited by
his parents the previous night."
Ellis had been convicted on 3 charges involving student "N" and 4 charges involving
student "L". McLoughlin writes:
"So many of the  charges against Ellis have been withdrawn, dropped during
the depositions stage or were dismissed during the trial or by the Court of Appeal that
the remaining charges must be seriously questioned. They came from the same flawed
interviewing process that led to the others."
Pressures grew for an independent inquiry into the case. This letter raises some
interesting questions about the investigative and court processes.
The New Zealand Court of Appeal reviewed the convictions. The Court
did not allow any
criticism of the interviewing techniques used. Yet this was the only significant factor in the case,
since there was no physical evidence to support the allegations of abuse. On
1999-OCT-14, the court overturned the 3 convictions involving "Lucy" but
upheld the remaining 13 guilty verdicts. His 10 year sentence was not
changed. The court recommended that a commission of inquiry be formed, as
the most appropriate way to consider the issues.
Mr. Ellis was finally freed in 2000-FEB after having served seven years of his 10
year sentence. He could have been released on parole earlier, but refused
because he would have had to first acknowledge that he
was guilty. He has continued to protest his
The ministerial inquiry:
During the year 2000, Justice Minister Phil Goff appointed former chief
justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum to conduct a ministerial inquiry.
The range of the inquiry was limited to studying whether the children's' interviews were reliable, and whether Mr.
Ellis should be pardoned. The outcome of his inquiry depended almost
entirely upon the experts that he selected to give him guidance. The
psychological community remains split among:
Those who favor believing children's disclosure of abuse -- no
matter how far-fetched, and
Those who are openly skeptical of young children's memories
extracted as the result of repeated direct questioning, and
Those who take a middle-of-the-road stance.
He chose only two experts to clarify whether the children's memories
were of real events. Unfortunately, he apparently felt compelled to bypass
the leading experts in the field, Stephen J Ceci and Maggie Bruck, because
they had previously worked for the defense. Instead, he selected two
experts who had no previous involvement with the case:
A Canadian psychologist, Dr Louise Sas, who promotes the use of "animatronic
dolls" to elicit sexual abuse memories in small children -- an
approach which many psychologists believe is likely to cause false
disclosures of abuse. Michael Corballis, Professor of Psychology at the
University of Auckland, commented: "In her report to Eichelbaum,
Sas's choice of words often betrays her implicit assumption that Ellis
was guilty, as indeed were others accused of sexual abuse. Children do
not provide testimony, they 'disclose', and in so doing do 'the right
thing'. She accepts that some interviews with the children were faulty,
but then refers to this as 'unfortunate', and excusable because of the
'interviewer's need to get a disclosure'. A person accused of sexual
abuse is an 'offender'. Cases where claims of sexual abuse are upheld by
the court are described as 'positive court outcomes'. And so it goes -
wonderful material for anyone interested in discourse analysis. This is
adversarial writing, not the dispassionate report one should expect of
an expert called upon to advise in a legal case." 11
A British psychologist, Professor Graham Davies. Corballis wrote
that Davies "might be described as middle-of-the-road with respect to
psychological disputes over the reliability of children's testimony. In
keeping with this, his report on the Ellis case notes marked
deficiencies in the interviewing techniques, but then excuses these by
noting that 'one can sympathize with the interviewers.' And, having
noted these deficiencies, he rather unaccountably concludes that 'by
today's standards the interviewing stands up surprisingly well'."
Corballis concluded that: "Davies's rather see-saw report clearly
gave Eichelbaum the opportunity to conclude that the interviews were
acceptable, and to find concordance between the two experts."
Eichelbaum's report was issued on 2001-MAR-13. Ellis' appeal
for a pardon was denied. 5
Ellis said: "The [Christchurch]
Civic [Child Care Centre case] is a part of a worldwide phenomena and New
Zealand has not addressed the phenomena by having a wide-ranging inquiry
as Britain, Canada, America and Australia have done, where similar mass
abuse allegations have arisen and have been dealt with. [The government]
walking away from the civic crèche case because it is convenient.
[It] leaves me still a guilty man".
Book by Lynley Hood: "A City Possessed:"
On 2001-OCT-1, Longacre Press published a 672 page book "A
City Possessed" by Lynley Hood. 6 It "is a
strong, compelling and shocking story about one of New Zealand's most
high-profile criminal cases - a story of child abuse allegations, gender
politics and the law. In detailing the events and debates leading up to
and surrounding the Christchurch Civic Creche case, Lynley Hood shows how
such a case could happen, and why. Her penetrating analysis of the social
and legal processes by which the conviction of Peter Ellis was obtained,
and has been repeatedly upheld, has far-reaching implications not only for
our justice system, but for the way in which we see ourselves." 7
Lynley Hood commented about her book: "The question I asked myself
was how come all these untrained, unsupervised people are diagnosing
sexual abuse on extremely dubious grounds at the taxpayers' expense and I
thought there would be a simple explanation."
"But once you start digging back you just uncover layer after layer
of disquieting material that never seems to have been properly assessed at
the time, I guess because it's easier at any given point to accept it
rather than challenge it."
"[Judge] Williamson's rulings before and during the trial meant Ellis'
lawyer Rob Harrison was effectively hamstrung - the jury did not get to
hear the most bizarre of the children's allegations, but did learn of the
highly prejudicial but irrelevant conversations Ellis had about unusual
sexual practices between consenting adults."
"What's the point of having a law which says you can say something
is consistent with the child having been abused when nothing is
inconsistent with abuse?"
After reading the book, Graham J Wright of Pleasant Point, Zealand
wrote a letter to Phil Goff, the New Zealand Minister of Justice. Goff
refuses to read the book. Wright wrote: "I have just put down Lynley
Hood's book, 'A City Possessed', all 672 pages of it, and if I had any
doubts about a miscarriage of justice, then such doubts are now completely
dispelled. I cannot see how any reasonable person reading this book could
harbour doubt on the innocence of Peter Ellis." 8
2002 public opinion poll:
A survey of 750 New Zealand adults was conducted by the National
Business Review and Compaq. It revealed that 51% of those
polled believed that Peter Ellis is not guilty of the charges brought
against him. Also determined: 25% feel that he is guilty; 24% are unsure
or refused to answer. In Christchurch, 55% said that Ellis is innocent.
The margin of error is 3.6% "Justice Minister Phil Goff has indicated
he considered the case closed following last year's report by the former
Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, commissioned by the Attorney-General,
which concluded Ellis' convictions should stand. But critics, including
New Zealand Law Journal editor Bernard Robertson, said the ministerial
inquiry was either wrongly directed or at fault. They have called for the
government to revisit the issue and Ms Hood said she believed the
government should order an independent commission of inquiry, headed by an
overseas judge. She favoured the model of the South African truth and
reconciliation commission, which aimed to uncover the truth rather than
award compensation." 9
Developments during 2003:
Justice Minister Phil Goff appears to some as stonewalling calls for
a inquiry into the Peter Ellis case.
Two of the child complainants, believed to be "L" and "N," went
public to repeat their allegations that they have memories of ritual
satanic abuse. 10
Lynley Hood, author of "A City Possessed" said that Ellis was the victim of a witch
hunt and mass hysteria fuelled by the "sex abuse industry." She
feels that the two children, "L" and "N" were the most manipulated of all
by parents, therapists and interviewers. She said: "Nobody has ever
called the creche children liars. The pressure shows in the interview
transcripts, in the notes parents made of their conversations with the
children, in the statements parents made to the police and to the
court....The techniques used are known to induce false memories.
Consequently, while their alleged memories may exist, they are anything
but reliable." 10
Two petitions have been organized to ask for a commission of inquiry
into the case. One was signed by 140 high-profile New Zealanders,
including a retired judge, and several Queen's Counsel. Another petition
was signed by more than 3,000 members of the public. 10
This includes signatures of nine young adults who were children at the
time of the case, and 17 parents -- all of whom were involved with the
Michael Corballis, Professor of Psychology at the University of
Auckland, commented: "The Justice Minister has avowed that he will
not order any further inquiry into the Ellis case unless new evidence is
forthcoming. The problem lies not in the lack of evidence, but rather in
the manner in which the existing evidence was interpreted. That message
is clear from Hood's book, but somehow seems to have escaped the legal
According to Wikipedia:
"In August 2005, Parliament's justice and electoral select committee
reported on the two petitions relating to the Ellis case. The committee had
several concerns with the way the case was prosecuted. It recommended
several changes although it acknowledged that changes had already been made
to the way that children were now interviewed. It also suggested that the
testimony of expert prosecution witness, Karen Zelas, would not be permitted
if it were proffered now. The committee noted that: 'The operation of the
legal system in respect of this case did not inspire adequate public
confidence in the operation of the legal system. A justice system should
lead to certainty. In this case it seemed to increase the sense of
uncertainty.' However, the committee rejected the petitioners' call for a
commission of inquiry, concluding that it was not practical to hold such an
"On April 4, 2006, it was announced that Ellis plans to appeal to the
Privy Council in London." 12
Current status of the Peter Ellis case:
Ellis continues to be considered by some New Zealanders
as being guilty of crimes that he
did not commit -- in fact, he is believed guilty of crimes that probably never happened. 4
Meanwhile, the children are now teenagers. Many probably have serious
emotional difficulties arising from the false memories of horrendous abuse which
appear to have been implanted in their minds.
Other Christchurch Cases
Prior to the crèche case, there were a number of other multi-victim abuse panics in the
city. It has been alleged that a single group of social workers was involved in all four
hoaxes. No charges were laid in any of the cases:
The Ward 24 case was named after the children's ward of Christchurch Hospital. In
1988, the New Zealand television program Frontline revealed that large numbers of
children had been diagnosed as having been sexually abused (often by their fathers) and
removed from their families. These conclusions were based on manipulative interviews of
children at the hospital. An investigation found the allegations to be baseless.
The Glenelg Health Camp in Christchurch is one of a network of camps for
underprivileged children in New Zealand. In the late 1980's many, perhaps dozens, of
children mass-misdiagnosed as having been victims of sexual assault, often by their
fathers. The charges were later totally discredited.
A family in Christchurch were subjected to allegations that the father
was sexually abusing his children. The allegations were later found to be baseless.
A belief circulated about a massive sex and kiddy-porn ring involving prominent adults
in the Christchurch community - including businessmen, judges and members of the Masonic
order. The police conducted an investigation in the late 1980's and early 1990's but
turned up nothing.