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Christchurch NZ cases:

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:

  1. Starting 1985 in New Zealand, child molesters could be convicted on the uncorroborated testimony of young children.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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:
bullet Forcing one boy to kill another boy named Andrew in a Satanic ritual. (No boy was reported missing in town.)
bullet Inserting items into the children's body cavities.
bullet Being forced to stand naked while female crèche workers danced around them. (No workers could recall any of these events.)
bullet Being placed in ovens.
bullet Being taken through tunnels, inside ceilings, across rooftops and through trapdoors.
bullet Being suspended in cages from the ceiling.
bullet Having lighted paper stuck into their anus.
bullet Being hit by Ellis with the result that the child's knee was bruised. (Ellis was in jail at the time the abuse allegedly happened).
bullet 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:
bullet During the first interview, the child denied that any abuse occurred
bullet During subsequent interviews, disclosures were made of an increasingly bizarre nature.

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 cases:
bullet Lucy was either 5 or 9 when the interviews were made (sources differ).
bullet She said that she had earlier disclosed abuse to other workers at the center, but none of them could recall any such report.
bullet She had not mentioned the abuse for years, until after the case went public.
bullet The initial disclosure occurred when her mother asked suggestive questions and described Ellis in a negative light.
bullet Her first disclosure matched the scenario of one of her mother's initial questions.
bullet The Department of Social Welfare repeatedly interviewed Lucy in six sessions, years after the event.
bullet During the first session, she asked 14 times that the interview stop.
bullet When her statements did not fit the details of the accepted scenario, they were ignored.
bullet Anatomically correct dolls were used improperly and produced conflicting stories. These dolls have since been shown to facilitate false accusations.
bullet The interviewers used leading questions.
bullet 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:
bullet 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.
bullet Lucy and others had no physical signs of abuse; the only evidence was the children's testimony.
bullet Many of the activities that she described were not physically possible.
bullet 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.
bullet Lucy gave conflicting accounts of the state of her clothing, the state of Ellis' clothing, the location, and the perpetrators during her interviews.
bullet One child retracted their story after the trial.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet There were many student teachers at the crèche and almost a dozen other employees; none saw anything that would confirm the children's stories.
bullet 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 perhaps the 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:
bullet The interviewers did not examine alternative explanations for the children's allegations.
bullet They asked repeated, direct questions; this often leads to different conflicting answers.
bullet 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.

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The "smoking gun" letter:

In 1996-JUL, information about a "smoking gun" letter was released by a New Zealand journalist. 3 It 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 [48] 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.

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The appeal:

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 innocence.

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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:

bullet Those who favor believing children's disclosure of abuse -- no matter how far-fetched, and
bullet Those who are openly skeptical of young children's memories extracted as the result of repeated direct questioning, and
bullet 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:

bullet 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
bullet 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." 11

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".

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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

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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

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Developments during 2003:

During 2003-AUG:

bullet Justice Minister Phil Goff appears to some as stonewalling calls for a inquiry into the Peter Ellis case.
bullet 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
bullet 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
bullet 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 creche.
bullet 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 system." 11

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Recent developments:

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 inquiry."

"On April 4, 2006, it was announced that Ellis plans to appeal to the Privy Council in London." 12

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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.

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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:
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet A family in Christchurch were subjected to allegations that the father was sexually abusing his children. The allegations were later found to be baseless.
bullet 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.

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Additional material:

bullet See the Peter Ellis Org. at:

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  1. The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 1995-JUL-28, P. 3; 1995-JAN-9, P. 11
  2. David McLoughlin, "Second Thoughts on the Christchurch Civic Creche Case; Has Justice Failed Peter Ellis?, North and South (New Zealand monthly), 1996-AUG, P. 54-69
  3. David McLoughlin, Senior Writer, North & South: News Statement, 1995-JUL-19
  4. "Peter Ellis' Court of Appeal Judgement [sic]," at: 
  5. David McLoughlin, "Ellis not holding this breath for a pardon," The Dominion, Wellington, NZ, 2001-MAR-3.
  6. Lynley Hood, "A City Possessed," Longacre Press, (2001), 672 Pages. Read reviews or safely purchase this book from the online bookstore.
  7. From a news release by Longacre Press.
  8. Book review from the web site
  9. Deborah Cone, "First guilt poll reveals public view on controversial case," National Business Review, Auckland NZ, 2002-MAY-3.
  10. Donna Chisholm, "Peter Ellis' appeal to Privy Council could be abandoned," The Sunday Star-Times (Auckland, NZ), 2003-AUG-17, Page 3.
  11. Michael Corballis, "Memory and the Law," New Zealand Listener, 2003-SEP-13-19, Pages 32-35.
  12. "Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis," Wikipedia, 2006-SEP-20, at:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2004 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-SEP-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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