One of New Zealand’s strangest and most hotly debated criminal cases has re-emerged. Peter Ellis, convicted in 1993 of child sex abuse charges in the Christchurch Civic Creche case, has been granted leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.
However Peter Ellis is now dying of cancer and has been given three months to live. When he dies, the Supreme Court proceedings die with him. His lawyers have asked for urgency, but time must be given to the Crown to consider new evidence, and that’s expected to slow things down.
Court reporter Martin van Beynen had been at the Christchurch Press for just three months when the first allegation over Peter Ellis emerged.
“I don’t think any of the reporters knew how the allegations arose,” he says. “We did know in 1991 that police were investigating and that some interviews had been done.” It wasn’t until March 1992 when Ellis was arrested on the first charge of 45 he would eventually face that the rumours started flying. “During that year more and more children were interviewed, and more and more allegations came out,” says van Beynen.
It wasn’t till after the actual trial that the full details emerged … by which time Christchurch was being swept along in an international focus on child abuse, on exaggerated figures of sexual assault and a dogma of believing the children, and believe it or not, on satanic rituals and paedophile rings.
By October 1992 four of Ellis’ female co-workers at the Christchurch Civic Creche, were arrested on child sex assault charges. Charges against all four women were dropped just before the Ellis trial. Ellis was found guilty in June 1993 and served seven years of a 10 year sentence, protesting his innocence all along.
The whole thing started when a mother whose three year old son went to the crèche said he’d told her he didn’t like “Peter’s black penis”. His mum was a social worker who’d written a handbook on sexual abuse. A formal complaint was made to the crèche in November 1991 and police investigated.
‘By Christmas police decided to close that investigation down – but not entirely happy with what had gone on at the crèche,” says van Beynen. “But they decided the investigation wouldn’t go any further, at that stage anyway. Then it was reactivated again after Christmas when parents were talking to their kids about what had happened and quite a few of them wanted their children interviewed by social welfare specialists. A lot of those allegations were made in those interviews.”
The allegations? That Ellis took youngsters on sex safaris … he handed them to Asian men for sex … smuggled them through tunnels into dungeons ... his mother had hung them in cages from the ceiling …. they were forced to drink urine and faeces … a needle was put into a boy’s penis. Other allegations had a ritualistic flavour.
Satanic Panic swept Christchurch. The play The Crucible, about the Salem Witch Trials, was playing and became the centre of accusations that it was because of the case. Graffiti imploring the city to ‘believe the children’ appeared. Peter Ellis was beaten up in his home, and a bullet sent to his mail box.
“There was a certain atmosphere …. and there was definitely a feeling that secret and evil things were happening behind doors that would one day be exposed, van Beynen says. “I do remember, no one saying ‘oh look this couldn’t happen … this is ridiculous’.”
After his release, author Lynley Hood published “A City Possessed,” arguing that the professional careers of experts benefited by the case while more than 100 children were subjected to unpleasant, repetitive and psychologically dangerous procedures for no good reason.
One child had retracted her allegations, saying she was only saying what her mother wanted her to. That resulted in three convictions against Ellis being quashed, but his sentence was upheld.
“There were lots of bizarre allegations,” says van Beynen. “The way the Crown got around that was to say well these are children who believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, so it would be easy to mislead them.”
There have been a raft of high profile people saying this case is a huge miscarriage of justice. But two appeals and an inquiry by former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum have upheld the guilty verdict – in spite of very similar cases overseas involving ‘moral panic’ being overturned. Four New Zealand justice ministers have turned down calls for another inquiry. Van Beynen doubts this new opportunity, a grant to appeal to the Supreme Court, will work either.
“My feeling is that they’ll be very reluctant to overturn these convictions. A lot of the evidence will be pretty much the same that’s been brought out before. But I just think we know so much more with the benefit of hindsight, so who knows?
“I think Peter Ellis is innocent but you can’t rule it out. Only Peter knows.”