Peter Ellis case faces its final court test
Time is running out for convicted child sex offender Peter Ellis to clear his name in a case some describe as the worst miscarriage of justice in New Zealand’s history.
Terminally ill with advanced bladder cancer and believed to have only months to live, Ellis was last week granted leave by the Supreme Court to appeal against his convictions.
The 61-year-old was found guilty in 1993 of 16 counts of sexually abusing children in his care at the Christchurch Civic Crèche and served seven years of a 10-year jail sentence.
Since then, Ellis has appealed twice to the Court of Appeal, the second time after a referral by the Governor-General.
The first appeal quashed three of his convictions, but the second appeal against the remaining 13 was dismissed in 1999.
Now the Supreme Court has said it will hear his case, notwithstanding the length of time that has passed since his second appeal was dismissed.
It noted that despite the delay, the interests of justice require his application to be granted.
Ellis is appealing on the grounds that best practice about the way children should be interviewed about sexual abuse allegations has changed markedly from the interviewing techniques used in the early 1990s.
He will argue those techniques were susceptible to producing false allegations.
The controversial manner in which the interviews with the children were conducted was the focus of an hour-long Assignment television documentary Ellis through the looking glass I made in 1995.
The program also examined the judicial process which gave great weight to the veracity of the children’s testimony, despite one of the Crown’s key complainants later recanting her evidence and serious questions being raised about the credibility of others.
Today it seems inconceivable that Ellis and four female co-workers at the crèche should have been charged with such offences but, as I soon discovered when making the program, there were other forces at work which conspired against them.
The Assignment documentary
For someone accused of vile crimes against young children, Christchurch Civic Crèche supervisor Gay Davidson looked strangely normal when I sat down with her nearly 25 years ago for a cup of tea in her modest Christchurch home.
I had been expecting to meet someone resembling the infamous Moors murderer Myra Hindley who, with her accomplice Ian Brady, killed five children in Britain in the early 1960s. Most of their victims had been sexually assaulted and Hindley was described as a sexually sadistic psychopath.
But the woman across the table from me in Christchurch appeared to be incapable of hurting a fly let alone a bunch of preschoolers.
“Just what were you have supposed to have done?” I asked her.
“We’re supposed to have got a child to stab another child, we’re supposed to have buried children, we’re supposed to have cooked them in ovens, we’re supposed to have walked them to unknown addresses and had them abused by unknown people and walked them back to the centre and had their parents collect them, and they’ve been as happy as Larry and no-one has said anything.”
Davidson finished speaking with a sigh and shook her head, and well she might, because she and three female colleagues went to hell and back before charges they faced of sexually violating and indecently assaulting children in their care were dropped.
But colleague Peter Ellis was not so lucky. He was sentenced to 10 years’ jail for committing similar offences, despite a large body of opinion which thought he was just as innocent as the women he worked with.
The five were employed at the Christchurch Civic Crèche, which in 1991 became the focus of what was then the biggest child abuse inquiry New Zealand had ever seen.
It had become a judicial can of worms and I wanted to know whether Ellis, a flamboyantly bisexual man, could have committed any of the sexual offences that had put him behind bars.
At the time of the alleged offending, Christchurch was in the grip of a moral panic, largely the result of visiting American lecturers who spread fear and alarm among the population with warnings that Satanic ritual abuse was rife in the city.
They spoke of adults preying on young children and subjecting them to weird religious rituals as well as sexually and physically abusing them.
Their bizarre claims fell on fertile ground with many parents, social workers and even some police unquestioningly accepting what they said.
So the scene was set for a showdown and the Christchurch Civic Crèche became the epicentre, all because of a child’s chance remark to his mother.
The mother, who can’t be identified for legal reasons, told me what her son had said:
“He was playing with his toys in the bath and he said, ‘Mum I don’t like Peter’s black penis’. So I said, ‘have you seen Peter’s penis?’ And he said, ‘yes and I don’t like it’. ‘Where have you seen it?’ And he said, ‘in the sleep room’.”
That remark prompted her to complain about Ellis, who’d been employed at the crèche for five years.
It was the first time anyone had accused him of abusing children but it triggered an avalanche of complaints from others who accused him of sexually abusing their kids.
Thirty-two-year-old Ellis was soon cast as the devil incarnate and the crèche a den of iniquity.
Until then, no one had a bad word to say about the crèche or its staff, and even the Education Review Office had given it a glowing report, saying: “The staff ensure personal needs are met with warmth, care and consideration. The children appear happy, inquisitive and sociable. The centre provides a warm, accepting and welcoming environment where personal wellbeing is promoted.”
The report confirmed what crèche parents Malcolm and Mary Cox had known for a long time; they’d been associated with it for 10 years and when I interviewed them were still in a state of disbelief at what Ellis was supposed to have done there.
“We had three children that went through the crèche. Not one thought ever entered my mind on any day ever that sexual abuse would have occurred at the crèche,” Mary Cox said.
And how did they feel about Ellis?
“He was gay, he was perhaps a bit gregarious and I wondered what we had struck but he was particularly good with the kids and I never saw him do anything inappropriate with the kids,” Malcolm Cox said.
Marie Keys, another crèche worker implicated in the abuse, said she was convinced one thing was responsible for all the complaints.
“I think there was hysteria, public hysteria. We had this first meeting when the police came along, the social welfare interviewers came along and we had the council along and they said they weren’t really worried at that stage. They said, ‘don’t go home and question your children but give us a ring if you’ve got any concerns’. And, of course, parents got together and started talking, and they did question their children and it just grew from there.”
And closely involved in this networking was the woman who made the original complaint.
“I felt a lot of other children had been at risk and I was concerned for the children,” she said. “I cared about the friends I knew and they were the only people I contacted. They may have contacted people they knew but that was not my responsibility.”
Asked whether she wasn’t at least partly responsible for creating the hysteria, she said: “Well, it’s just not true. I mean it’s blatantly illogically silly to suggest that that could be true from one person.”
This woman later moved her child to another crèche where she accused another male worker of abusing him.
Her complaint was duly investigated by police who found no evidence of any wrongdoing.
However, by early 1992 police were dealing with a flood of complaints and evidential interviewing of children began in earnest.
The interviews were conducted by a team of three social welfare psychologists who took it in turns to quiz each child.
Not long after this Peter Ellis was arrested and charged with sexually abusing one child at the crèche, although by the end of the year he would be facing 16 charges involving seven children.
The day after his arrest, anxious parents attended a meeting at Christchurch’s Knox Hall where police, social welfare, accident compensation corporation and city council officials did their best to offer reassurance.
They advised parents how to make sexual abuse claims with ACC and handed out pamphlets saying children who claim to have been sexually abused should be believed.
The children, themselves, were now making some quite extraordinary claims.
One said that he and others were taken to Peter Ellis’ house and forced to take part in a bizarre ceremony involving Ellis and three female crèche workers.
He said they were forced to stand naked in a circle and kick each other while two of the women had sex. The boy’s testimony fuelled police suspicions that Peter Ellis was not alone in abusing children at the crèche.
As a result they became more interested in crèche supervisor Gay Davidson and three of her staff, Jan Buckingham, Debbie Gillespie and Marie Keys.
Keys, a caring and compassionate woman, shrugged her shoulders when I asked her about some of the allegations. “It’s just totally mind-blowing and ridiculous.”
Gay Davidson was still seething about this allegation when I raised it with her.
“The particular child that made up the circle incident scenario was aged two and was questioned methodically by his parent. He actually said to her, ‘you ask me mummy and I’ll tell you’. This is an indication the kid didn’t know what to say; he didn’t know what his mother wanted from him because nothing had happened to him. At one stage, when she suggested Peter had abused him, he said, ‘no, Peter wouldn’t do that. He’s my friend’.”
Helping to seal the fate of the women was a report on the crèche by Christchurch psychologist Rosemary Smart.
It had been commissioned by the crèche’s owners, the Christchurch City Council, in the wake of the initial allegations.
In her report Smart outlined several concerns which she repeated to me. These included “comments that were made about the children, in their hearing, about the size of their genitals, about their bums and their tits. [It also included] the fact that one of the staff members told me she had seen Peter Ellis in the children’s toilet with his fly undone, and when she thought back about the incident she remembered, in fact, that there was a little boy in there and she remembered the child’s name.
“The thing that aroused most of my concern was that people were telling me these things in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice, as if they were quite okay and, to me, they weren’t and so I really had to question my own values about this thing. But I know that on the two days I did my interviewing I went home and felt I really wanted to have a bath or a shower afterwards.”
Rosemary Smart’s report on the crèche was closely studied by the police and to them it raised an important question: Why weren’t the other crèche workers suspicious of Peter Ellis’ behaviour?
They concluded the women not only knew what Ellis had been up to but were active participants themselves, so late in 1992 they searched their homes before arresting four of them.
By this time they had interviewed 116 children, 80 of whom they believed had been abused, and had amassed what they believed was compelling evidence that Peter Ellis, Gay Davidson, Marie Keys, Jan Buckingham and Debbie Gillespie had systematically abused the children or performed indecencies.
The police refused to appear on Assignment so we were unable to test their findings. But Nigel Hampton QC, who defended Ellis, said he believed the police case was seriously flawed.
“The calibre of the evidence was really the lack of evidence,” Hampton said at the time.
“I mean, you have these extraordinary allegations being made against him, and against the women for that matter over a period of time, including obviously physical hurting, burning, tampering with, injuring of children, never any physical signs that would corroborate any of those things at all. Nothing. No complaints at the time at all. Nothing.”
Many of the children’s allegations related to incidents that were supposed to have happened within the Cranmer Centre, the former Christchurch Girls High School building that housed the crèche.
The crèche occupied a small corner of the rambling building which was leased to several organisations. Given the number of people working there, it was hard to imagine the abuse went unseen.
I combed every nook and cranny of the building with our cameraman, inspecting the places where some of the children said they had been abused.
First, we went looking for the secret underground tunnels that Ellis was supposed to have taken them to, but found no evidence of them whatsoever.
And then, wearing protective clothing because of the dirt and grime, we went to the boiler room where he is also alleged to have abused them.
Because of the confines of the room, and the noise and the heat, it seemed an unlikely venue for such activity.
From there we crawled, as Ellis and the children supposedly did, along a narrow cavity that led us to a trapdoor which opened into an upstairs hall.
We managed to do it, but it was no easy task and would have been almost impossible for youngsters to accomplish.
At the very least, the experience would have left them tired, dirty and distressed.
The upstairs hall where they allegedly ended up was the scene of perhaps the most extraordinary story told to police by one of the children.
The child claimed he and others were placed in a cage and strung up from one of the beams in the ceiling. As they dangled from the ceiling, animals were sacrificed down below.
Amazing as it may seem, this story, like all the others relating to the building, was taken seriously by the police.
They searched every corner of the structure looking for evidence of abuse, but none was ever found.
Marie Keys’ husband Roger told me the whole thing was a figment of the children’s imagination.
“There was no evidence. Where were the cages that, it was alleged, the children were hung up in? Where were the coffins that they were supposed to be buried in? Where’s the [body of the] boy who was supposed to have been murdered at the Civic? Stabbed in the head and laying in a coffin.
“It’s unusual that a parent would go to a childcare centre, ask for their child …. and what would the staff say? ‘Sorry, he’s dead in a coffin upstairs’ and they just go away and accept it like that? All of it was the word of children.”
But the police and some of the children’s parents thought otherwise, and Peter Ellis and the four women found themselves in court fighting for their personal and professional reputations.
Next week: The long road to the Supreme Court