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Extract: A City Possessed – The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

The following four short extracts are from A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case by Lynley Hood, which has just been reprinted by Otago University Press. The book was first published in 2001 and won the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards. The controversial conviction of Peter Ellis in 1993 for child sexual abuse hit the headlines once again with the announcement in July this year that Ellis was terminally ill, and that his legal team was lodging a further appeal hearing in a last-ditch attempt to clear his name. The Supreme Court will conduct the appeal in November, but Peter Ellis will never know the outcome; he passed away earlier this month. 

Content warning: the following contains graphic descriptions of alleged sexual abuse

On 20 November 1991 one of the most extensive and expensive police investigations in New Zealand history was set in motion when the parent of a child attending the Christchurch Civic Child Care Centre (commonly known as the Christchurch Civic Crèche) stated her suspicion that “Peter [Ellis] may have been involved in inappropriate sexual behaviour with or around our son.” In the course of the investigation either 116, 118, 127 or 132 children (depending on whose figures you accept) were interviewed by sexual abuse specialists from the Department of Social Welfare (DSW).

At the preliminary court hearing, which began on 2 November 1992, Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis, the only male childcare worker at the centre, faced 45 charges of indecencies involving 20 children. A further 15 charges involving five children were laid, jointly with Ellis, against four of his women colleagues: supervisor Gaye Davidson and childcare workers Marie Keys, Janice Buckingham and Deborah Gillespie.

Ellis was alleged to have inserted his fingers, his penis, needles, sticks and food into the vaginas, mouths and anuses of children in his care. He was accused of urinating on them and making them drink his urine and eat his faeces. Gillespie was alleged to have inserted her finger in a child’s vagina, and undressed and engaged in sexual intercourse with Ellis in the crèche toilets. Davidson, Keys and Buckingham were accused, together with Ellis, of participating in “the circle incident”, an occasion at which, it was claimed, children had sticks inserted in their anuses and were made to kick each other’s genitals and perform other indecencies. The offences were said to have taken place between May 1986 and February 1992.

On 11 February 1993, at the end of the 11-week preliminary court hearing, all five accused were committed for trial. But by the time the case reached the High Court on 26 April the women had been discharged; Ellis alone remained, facing 28 charges involving 13 children. Fourteen of the offences were alleged to have taken place at the crèche. The rest were said to have taken place at “an unknown address” (10), at a child’s home (two), at a house where Ellis once boarded (one) and elsewhere in the building in which the crèche was housed (one). Three charges involving two children were dismissed during the trial.

On 6 June 1993, after 24 days of evidence, two days of summing up and three days of deliberation, the 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. There were no adult eyewitnesses. There was no physical evidence. The verdicts were based on the testimony of seven young children (whose ages ranged from six to nine years). Three weeks later Justice Williamson sentenced Ellis to 10 years in prison. “The jury disbelieved you,” he said. “They believed the children, and I agree with that assessment.”

Ms Mahogany* did not take up the invitation to have her children interviewed. “A few years earlier I was on a social services committee,” she explained. “The abuse team came and spoke to us. They were very strong women. I felt they would be quite intimidating for a child. So when we were urged to have our children interviewed, I thought: Oh no, not my kids.”

Ms Elm*, a counsellor who had seen many of her colleagues become sexual abuse specialists virtually overnight, also kept her child out of the investigators’ hands: “I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want any of those “experts” having anything to do with her. I’ll be accused of being “in denial” for sure, but I don’t have enough respect or confidence in the people who do that evidential stuff to allow Nina to be interviewed by them.’ J agreed. At that stage we weren’t saying she hadn’t been abused. We were just saying that whatever emerged we would deal with as a family. I felt, and still feel very strongly, that if she had suffered any trauma those ‘experts’ would have aggravated it.”

But at the Knox Hall meeting there was a whole range of parents: perfectionist parents who needed someone to blame because their children were less than perfect; druggies and dropouts who needed someone to blame for their parenting difficulties; child protection workers who believed the abuse stories as if they were holy writ; parents whose children had behavioural problems for a whole variety of reasons; parents who believed in the omniscience of experts; parents desperate for reassurance that their kids were OK.

For many parents, the invitation to have their children interviewed was irresistible. Ms Willow* recalled: “I don’t know whether we were urged or invited to send our children to be interviewed. I think the message was: anyone who has any concerns should get in touch. Of course we had concerns! We wanted to know whether or not our children had been abused!”

Among the extraordinary variety of Civic Child Care Centre parents, Mr and Ms Macrocarpa* were in a category all their own. You could tell by their clothes, and by the dead cars on their front lawn, that they didn’t give a toss about status and appearances. Terms like “larger than life”, “anarchic” and “feral” come to mind. Charles Dickens would have loved the Macrocarpas.

During the first meeting for crèche parents in December 1991, the Macrocarpas accused the speakers of conducting a witch-hunt, and walked out. Then, after visiting Peter Ellis and satisfying themselves of his innocence, they turned their backs on the investigation.

“Did you have your children interviewed by DSW?” I asked.

“Christ no, we’re not stupid,” said Mr Macrocarpa.

Following the crèche closure, the Macrocarpas threw their formidable energy into supporting the Civic staff. They wrote letters, made phone calls and visited their Member of Parliament. When they told their MP they were supporters of Peter Ellis and the women crèche workers he said, “If you’ve got any information you should go to the police.” Shortly after that, in what the Macrocarpas regard as a suspicious coincidence, the police came to them. Ms Macrocarpa recalled:

“Detective Jenkins walked in without knocking. He said, ‘I want to speak to you about your association with Peter Ellis.’ I told him to go away. I said, ‘I know I don’t have to talk to you. I’m not interested in talking to you.’ He wouldn’t leave. He said, ‘If you won’t cooperate you must be a child abuser.’ I said, ‘If you don’t leave I’ll ring someone in the police department who’ll make you leave.’ At which point he left.”

Ms Macrocarpa phoned her husband and he rushed home, convinced that the police were about to return with a search warrant. Mr Macrocarpa continued the story: “I thought – What have we got in the house that we don’t want to be hassled about? I had an AA road sign I’d been given. I wasn’t sure whether it was illegal to have it, but I thought – Oh, I’ll get rid of it. So I chucked it in the car along with all the videotapes – 26 of them, all three or four hours long. We knew the police were hot under the collar about videos, and we didn’t want to lose ours.”

While the Macrocarpas packed the car, Detective Jenkins watched from across the road. When Mr Macrocarpa drove off, Jenkins followed. When Mr Macrocarpa stopped around the corner, Jenkins arrested him for receiving an AA sign. Shortly afterwards, more police arrived:

“You should have seen the looks of glee when they found the videotapes! Jenkins said, ‘OK, what’s on the videotapes?’ I said, ‘There’s music and there’s children’s programmes.’ ‘What’s on the videotapes?’ ‘Music and children’s programmes.’ I don’t know how many times he asked. Finally I said, ‘OK, I’ll tell you: Thomas the Tank Engine, Power Rangers, Postman Pat, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Dire Straits, Queen, Tim Finn, Neil Finn, Crowded House.’ I went through every single one. I refused to stop until I’d come to the end. Jenkins was really pissed off. He told me I was a child abuser like my wife.”

After six court appearances relating to the AA sign, Mr Macrocarpa was discharged without conviction. “They were so vociferous,” his wife said. “It was like we were the ideological enemy.”

As the defence pointed out, there were obvious problems with allegations that Ellis owned a real giraffe, that he turned a child into a frog and a cat, that he swung a child around a prickle bush by his penis, and that he put children in cages with lions and buried them in graveyards. Furthermore, since the police had ruled out the Masonic Lodge as a venue for the alleged abuse, the allegations concerning that building were clearly untrue. In response, the interviewers said that allegations of that sort were open to a variety of interpretations.

In fact, issues surrounding the interpretation of children’s evidence were pivotal to the entire case. The police had found no physical evidence, no evidence of an unhealthy sexual interest in children on the part of any defendant and no adult corroboration of the children’s claims. So the prosecution case depended entirely on the proposition that the children’s videotaped allegations were reliable evidence of real crimes.

In the aftermath of the case, critics claimed that those responsible for interpreting the children’s videotapes had failed to carry out reality checks on the children’s comments. As it happened, evidence to support that claim was revealed at the depositions hearing in relation to the allegations of Ryan Matai*.

At the start of his first interview in June 1992, Ryan said he couldn’t remember the crèche or any of its staff. But when Cathy Crawford introduced ‘Peter’ and ‘naughty’ into the conversation, he got the message. After pursuing that theme for almost an hour, Crawford summarised Ryan’s litany of offences committed by Peter.

“He squeezed your arm, he smacked your bottom, he kicked your face, he choked your neck. What else happened?”

“He killed all the people with axes,” said Ryan. “He killed all the boys not me cos I, I’m too fast for him …”

“And how did that make you feel?” Crawford asked, before seeking further examples of Peter’s naughtiness.

Eventually, Crawford’s apparent willingness to believe whatever he said began to worry Ryan. “Oh he didn’t really um smack me or hit me or something, I’m just joking, ha ha,” he said.

Undeterred, Crawford suggested they mark on a body-outline the places where Peter hurt him. Ryan pointed to the neck, hand and bottom.

“Now all this is true,” Crawford reminded him. Ryan told her it was not.

“I’m just really joking,” he said. “I’m just really telling things. He pulled off my tummy button.”

“How did he do that?”

“With pliers.”

“Mmm and how did your tummy button feel?” Crawford asked. Then, when she directed his attention to the genitals on the body outline, Ryan came up with an allegation of sexual assault.

“He pulled um he put some cellotape on my penis and he took it off and blood came off with it,” said Ryan.

“Actually I’m just telling jokes,” he added. But Crawford appeared not to believe him. “I’m just joking at the moment,” he insisted.

As long as Crawford continued her questioning, Ryan had little choice but to continue his story. He said that blood from his penis came down from the roof and went all over Peter. “Actually there was so much blood … it was all gone and I wasn’t alive,” he concluded.

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At his second interview two weeks later, Ryan said he bled to death when Peter squeezed his penis with pliers and “pulled the whole doodle right off”, and recovered when Peter reattached it with cellotape. But the more Crawford pressed him for details, the more emphatic the boy’s retractions became. “I was just really tricking,” he said. “I’m just really joking … I only joke, joking saying that, only joking, he doesn’t, do you hear? … I just joking about the whole question … Do you know I’m just joking? Do you know that?”

That an imaginative five-year-old might tell stories of that sort is not in itself surprising. What is surprising, and disturbing, is the manner in which Ryan’s story was handled by investigators and prosecutors in the crèche case. First, Cathy Crawford, in consultation with her supervisor Dr Karen Zelas, accepted that Ryan had made a genuine disclosure of sexual abuse. Next, Detective Colin Eade accepted that Ryan had provided evidence of an offence. Then, Crown prosecutor Chris Lange accepted that the charge of indecent assault laid by Eade was reliable enough to go to court.

*Not a real name

Originally published in 2001, A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case by Lynley Hood has been republished in 2019 by Otago University Press and is available from Unity Books


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