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Why the Peter Ellis Civic Creche Case won’t go away

Article originally published in 2015

Ellis, painted by Henrietta Harris.

Few stories have divided the nation with such ferocity and longevity as the Christchurch Civic Creche case. Almost 25 years after bizarre accusations of ritualistic abuse saw childcare worker Peter Ellis jailed as a paedophile, he is still fighting to clear his name. Beck Eleven talks to Ellis defenders, doubters and the man himself.

On November 20, 1991, a mother whose son attended the Christchurch Civic Creche reported her son had told her he “did not like Peter’s black penis”.

Peter Ellis, a 33-year-old white man, had been working at the central-city creche for about five years and was soon to become the focus of an intense police investigation into satanic, ritualistic child sex abuse.

After a lower court hearing lasting three months and a High Court trial of six weeks, he was found guilty on 16 of 28 charges of indecency in relation to seven complainants. Then, on an unusually warm winter’s day in June 1993, he was sentenced to 10 years’ jail as a convicted paedophile. He had maintained his innocence throughout.

Months after the “black penis” disclosure, parents were asked to attend a meeting in the Knox Church. They were told not to speak to their children about abuse for fear of contaminating procedure, but they were informed signs of abuse could include bedwetting, tantrums, anxiety, nightmares and stomach aches.

The mother of one of the creche children (she cannot be named for legal reasons, but we have called her Christine) remembers the meeting. “They told us not to talk to our kids and not to talk to each other, but what did they think we were going to do?” she says. “The handling of it all was appalling. The process was a mess, but it was unprecedented and the rumours were just crazy.

“Nobody wanted to believe it, although I’m pretty sure there were people around who really got into the attention the whole thing was receiving, like some sort of Civic Creche Munchausen syndrome – ‘my child was abused worse than your child’ sort of thing.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

By then, word had reached the media. Parents were understandably concerned and panicked. There was division between the families, amplified by division among the public. Marriages broke up, friendships were torn apart. When the topic of guilt or innocence came up, and it often did, dinner parties erupted. Just as the Springbok tour of 1981 created a mini civil war, so did the Civic Creche case.

During formal police interviews of 118 children, allegations were made that Ellis had taken youngsters on sex safaris, handed them to Asian men for sex, smuggled groups through tunnels and into dungeons. He had apparently thrown a bound child into the deep end of the QEII pool. Children claimed they’d been forced to drink urine and eat faeces, and had been hung in cages. One child said they were made to kick each other in the genitals while adults stood in a circle around them wearing black and white clothing and playing guitars.

Peter Ellis’s mother was said to have administered drugs to the children. An unnamed man had allegedly put a needle into one boy’s penis. Others said female creche workers were involved. Supervisor Gaye Davidson and staff members Marie Keys, Jan Buckingham and Debbie Gillespie were later arrested. Like Ellis, they denied the charges. All four women were discharged just before his trial.

Peter Ellis, photographed in October 2015 with his dog, Florence Mae Poodle, on Leithfield Beach in North Canterbury. Photo/Martin Hunter.

The creche was closed. Around a million dollars was paid in compensation and redundancy to workers. The families of children who’d allegedly been abused were entitled to ACC lump-sum payouts – paid to the parents at the time and held in a trust for the children to receive when they turned 21.

A criticism often levelled at the police during the investigation was that they interviewed several children multiple times, a practice no longer employed. Now, a single interview takes place (although police say there are always circumstances where subsequent interviews may be required). At the time, anatomically correct dolls of both genders were employed. Non-anatomical dolls are now used, only to clarify body positions and only after the child has given a verbal account of their story and all other options have been explored. 

One six-year-old boy, who was interviewed five times over five months, initially told his interviewer Ellis had smacked him on the bottom and wobbled his penis. By his fifth interview, in October 1992, the story sounded more fantastic:

Q: So, what happened in room 20?

A: Um, there were papers in there and Peter, um, held us up and was yelling because Peter had told them… and there was a hook that the cages went onto the ceiling and Peter’s mother hanged us up on the ceiling.

The following formed part of a six-year-old girl’s testimony:

Q : Mm, what’s, tell me some, tell me a mean thing that he did in the room?

A: Um, poked sticks up some of the kids’ bottoms.

Q: And how do you know he did that?

A: Because I saw him.

Q: Who did you see him do it to?

A: Me.

Q: What did your bottom feel like?

A: Um, scary.

Q: Mm, where did he get, whereabouts were your clothes when he did that?

A: Um, he just pulled our pants down.

Q: Who was there when he did that?

A:  Um, all of the men.

Q: What did the men look like?

A: Um, they all had funny haircuts.

Q: Okay, can you tell me the men’s names?

A: Spike, Boulderhead, Yuckhead and, um, and Stupidhead.

Peter Ellis with his then-lawyer Judith Ablett Kerr, QC, after his release from prison  in 2000, having served seven-and-a-half years of a 10-year sentence. Photo: Paddy Dillon/Getty Images.
Ellis had been an unambitious drifter, living above shops on Hereford St, where he kept rabbits and cats and dogs. He’d been a baker, drank at the Prince of Wales Hotel on St Asaph St, had relationships with men and women, and was on the benefit.

If there was a “sliding doors” moment when his life might have gone differently, it was his choice of punishment from the Christchurch court in 1986. He was sentenced to 80 hours’ community service for benefit fraud and given the choice of working at an animal shelter or taking part in a pilot scheme where low-level offenders could work in childcare.

For someone who loved animals so much, the shelter seemed an obvious choice. “But I couldn’t bear to see any animals put down,” Ellis told North & South in the first of two extensive interviews. “If I had chosen the shelter, I would have been bringing the animals home and I already had plenty. And I didn’t drive, so I had the choice of working at an animal shelter that was in the wop-wops and required two bus changes and a half-mile walk, or I could choose the children and take a quick jaunt up Hereford St to the Dux de Lux [bar and restaurant, formerly the site of the Civic Creche].

“You know which one I chose.”

He’s not kidding about his soft spot for pets. “Let’s just say I’m one step away from being a hoarder of animals,” he says.

At the Leithfield Beach cottage he rents from his sister, he keeps a dog, Florence Mae Poodle, “mostly Staffordshire terrier and part something we don’t mention”.

He also has three cats, 30 black Pekin bantams and chickens, a couple of rainbow lorikeets, two rescue parrots and about 22 racing pigeons for breeding. A picture of the Pekins is the screensaver on his phone, a technology with which he seems at odds, calling himself a Luddite and talking into it as if it’s a walkie-talkie. He’s less sentimental about the pigeons; imperfect specimens end up in the oven. “I’m a good cook,” he says. “There’s no waste.”

And so it was that practicality won the day and, the age of 28, Ellis chose to serve his court-ordered punishment at the Christchurch City Council-run creche.

We meet in the office of his lawyer, Kerry Cook, on the sixth floor of a Hereford St building overlooking mountains of steel and concrete that will one day be the city’s rebuilt retail precinct.

Years of interviews have left him with a bored resignation for mundane questions, such as how to spell his full name, Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis.

“M, small c, big G.”

His age? “Fifty-seven.” A sigh before begrudging yes/no answers relax into longer sentences.

He used to speak to the media a lot. He still gets roughly one request a week, but routinely turns them down. He agrees to talk to North & South on the condition that we don’t bother his mother – and eventually allows his photograph to be taken. It’s a significant concession.

“You’ve got to bear in mind every time the story comes out, some people think it’s new, and when you’ve got a 22-year-old man just down the road with his new kid, you walk up the street and he thinks, ‘There’s that fucking paedophile.’”

Until now, he’s been stuck in the public’s mind as a man with the threat of male-pattern balding, over-sized spectacles and a ponytail that sometimes ran to a mullet. Today, he looks more like a geography lecturer on his way home from band practice. He wears black pointy boots from The Warehouse, shiny black trousers and a cotton top with a white abstract pattern.

His trim beard is greying. He is slim, and that promise of balding has amounted to nothing. He won’t say if he’s “a taken bacon or a single Pringle”, but a white-haired man picks him up from both interviews.

Is he a bit of a loner? “If you can do 15 months in maximum security, you can spend time on your own quite nicely.”

Ellis photographed at his home in 2003. “Let’s just say I’m one step away from being a hoarder of animals,” he says.
With prison violence on the news agenda, Ellis talks about his treatment behind bars.

A jail guard who accompanied him to the trial thought he was innocent, he says, which is perhaps why his prison landing was more gentle than expected.

“As a general rule, a convicted paedophile might get beaten up, but I spent 15 months in maximum security waiting for my appeal. I decided I didn’t need to know anything more about jail, I was quite happy sitting in my pyjamas for 15 months and having my meals slid to me through a slot.

“I got to see all the bad eggs; they’d be down in max for a few weeks as punishment, but they’d go back to their wings. They’d actually met me and formed their own opinion, so by the time I did get to the wings, there was a general swell of support.

“A guard once said to me, ‘It goes in roundabouts, depending on the government of the day.’ At the time I was in prison, it was geared [more favourably] towards prisoners, consequently I was to be called ‘Client Ellis’. Then you get the Garth McVicars of the world screaming and jumping up and down. It goes in cycles, depending on who’s in charge.”

Ellis discovered a surprising number of inmates couldn’t read or write. “And I could, so that was one of the reasons I did very well in the prison system. I could offer something. I could read and understand protocols, prison policy manuals, help write letters, read people’s court reports – small things like that.

“Prison changed clearly where [my life] was going. Before, my days were reading Footrot Flats, the front page of the newspaper and the racing paper. Now, I follow the court news and politics, because they affect me. I’m not as frivolous as I once was.”

After serving the mandatory two-thirds of his sentence, he was freed on parole. He might have been released earlier but says he preferred jail to confessing to crimes he never committed.

His convictions have been the subject of extensive consideration, including two appeals and an inquiry by former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum All upheld the guilty verdict. In 2003, a petition was sent to Parliament seeking a royal commission. The petition was led by National MPs Don Brash and Katherine Rich, and Dunedin author Lynley Hood, who two years earlier had written a book criticising the case.

Signatories of that petition included former Labour prime ministers David Lange and Mike Moore, a retired High Court judge, Chris Finlayson (now Attorney-General), Judith Collins (who would later decline a similar request when she became justice minister), former Cabinet ministers, 26 MPs (including at least one from each of the seven political parties in Parliament at the time), nine Queen’s Counsel and nine law professors. It failed to sway then Justice Minister Phil Goff.

Now, each time there is a new justice minister, Brash, Rich and Hood resubmit their request for an inquiry. In 2008, Simon Power rejected their submission. In April this year, so did Amy Adams.

The Brash/Rich/Hood trio say any inquiry must be presided over by an overseas judge, as many senior New Zealand judges have had some involvement in the case. Brash was drawn to the controversy after his son suggested he read Hood’s 700-page book, A City Possessed. “I was stunned at how compelling a case it made,” he says. “The Peter Ellis case is a serious miscarriage of justice and I am utterly astonished [his conviction] hasn’t been overturned. It is implausible to believe four women and one man could do this in a busy creche.”

Despite weighty names behind the petition and support from across the political spectrum, Brash says it would be a brave MP to take on the cause. “Officials never want to acknowledge the system has failed and only a bold minister goes against their officials’ advice. You expose yourself immediately.”

Back in his lawyer’s office, Ellis is on best behaviour for the dictaphone. While the recording light is on, the worst he calls police is “wallies”.

“Why didn’t the police stop when kids were saying I drove them places? I don’t drive. Why didn’t they ask them more? If I was driving anything, it was a pretend car in a cardboard box beside a kid in the sandpit. There were staff and parents turning up at any time. How could any of this have happened?

“The police took away a pointy stick and a shoe, because they had faecal matter on them. But as they took them out of my bird cages, I don’t know what else they expected to find. They brought them back sealed in an evidence bag and said they had bird poo on them, and I went, ‘Oooh, surprise.’ Wally is a good word for them.”

He may have started out calm, but now Ellis is banging the table, punctuating each point. “Half those kids sat in those interviews and said nothing happened and that they didn’t want to come back. Consequently they made them do two, three, four, five interviews until they got something.

“It’s getting to be a piss-off. I wasn’t angry [then], but I’ve gotten angry in the last few years because of the stupidity of it all. Sort it out.”

He says “sort it out” often. Always with a touch of Cockney glottal stop.

Christine, the mother of a girl who gave an evidential video (but was not one of the final seven children whose complaints went to trial), says the progressive nature of the Civic Creche was part of its appeal. “It was the place to have your kids with all the movers and shakers. Kids climbed in and out of windows. There was no real regimental routine; the kids could go pretty feral.

“Peter was part of the appeal, because it was nice to have a man working in early childhood. It was a very liberal snapshot of the time and the fact that you had a criminal who was a gay man was a real coup for the creche. He related really well with the kids. He’d rumble and roughhouse and play crazy adventure games. But the thing that appealed was the same thing that brought it down.”

In 1992, Christine was in hospital due to complications with her third pregnancy when a friend visited with news that something terrible was bubbling at the creche. Her first thought was, “Bullshit”. Her second was relief, because she assumed any abuse must be recent – her daughter had been at the creche earlier, from 1988 to early 1991, before the family moved from the city to a small North Canterbury town.

By the time police had extended their inquiries to include all children who’d been at the creche with Ellis, she was juggling a new baby and driving back and forth to Christchurch for matters concerning the Civic Creche investigation.

“She [her daughter] was interviewed repeatedly, at least four times, and it seemed it was when we were driving home she’d start disclosing. So I wonder what they were telling her in those bloody interviews, because I’d never heard that stuff from her before – things about touching.”

Christchurch, a fairly conservative city with a mostly white population, was in turmoil. The month before depositions began in November 1992, The Crucible opened at the Court Theatre. People said the play, a fictionalised version of the Salem witch trials, was a deliberate staging to lend weight to Ellis supporters. Graffiti popped up around town. “BELIEVE THE CHILDREN” appeared, spray-painted on a wall.

Families divided into camps, those who were adamant their children had been abused and those who held fast to Ellis’s innocence. During the trial, recesses saw the two camps sent to separate rooms. At one point, one of the supporters burst into the opposite room and said, “So this is what a bunch of witch-hunters looks like!”

Christine didn’t consider herself to be in either camp, but she does believe “something” happened. “I did think, ‘There’s no smoke without fire.’”

It’s a phrase Ellis has heard repeatedly. “Well, I didn’t build the fire, I didn’t stick the match to it and I’m not the one still fanning the smoke around,” he says. “There are people who are embarrassed about building the fire and, to this day, the people who are still blowing the smoke around are politicians and people who have stuffed up and don’t want to admit it. Not my problem. Sort it out.”

Meanwhile, Christine wishes she’d never heard of the Civic Creche. “I’m of the opinion it was probably some inappropriate touching and low-level stuff – if you can call it that – but I certainly don’t think there were children hung in cages.

“I think most of the staff behaved inappropriately, and said inappropriate stuff, but not necessarily sexually. I recall children running around without pants on occasionally – and one of the creche women commenting on a little girl’s genitalia. It’s plausible that staff covered for each other.”

Christine has not watched her daughter’s evidential videos and cannot think what good it would do her to see them. She would like them to be destroyed.

“One day, she was at the next-door neighbour’s in the bath and she said something about drinking wees and my friend said, ‘No, we don’t drink wees, we do wees on the toilet’, and she said, ‘But we do at creche.’

“At the same time, I can just imagine Peter being stupid enough to say to a kid, ‘Drink your wees up’, with a glass of apple juice or something. I mean, he was totes inapprops.

“A lot of the time, it was really bordering on the edge, his conversations with children and with adults. The staff sort of had unhealthy relationships. It was always some bloody drama with somebody’s husband or boyfriend. But the kids seemed happy, I have to say.”

During the trial, public fascination with the case was impossible to escape. “It wasn’t just Christchurch but everywhere. You went into the dairy to buy a paper and someone was discussing the Civic. I remember going to a barbecue in Christchurch and things got really heated. I just picked up the kids and left.

“The children were treated like thalidomide kids, they were banded together like a bunch of slightly damaged people and with all the media swirling around, the kids were constantly re-victimised. We all were. It just seemed the whole of [my daughter’s] short little life to that point was marred by, if not what happened there, then what happened after.”

Eventually, the family moved overseas so her children could have normal lives without the fear of sitting on a bus listening to strangers discussing increasingly lurid details.

Christine’s daughter is 28 now. “She worries sometimes that perhaps Peter wasn’t guilty, so she has a fear an innocent man went to jail. But it’s just a fear, not an ‘I know.’”

By email, Christine’s daughter says she has no memories of her time at creche. “Which I find slightly weird, because I have other memories from around the time. I remember clearly the day Mum asked me about Peter. I was five and had not long started school. I have memories of being interviewed by the cops and counsellors. I remember being in a strange room and being asked to use dolls to explain things to them, but I have no memories of what I told them.

“The thing that sticks in my mind the most is the way the adults in my life started to treat me differently, and being branded as a ‘Civic kid’. This feeling stayed with me into my teenage years. Throughout my high school years, every time the media spotlight returned to this case I would feel withdrawn and hope no one at my school knew I was a Civic kid.

“Even as a young adult, I encountered situations at social occasions where people wanted to debate his innocence or guilt. I remember crawling into my own skin, hoping no one would notice how awkward it made me. Perhaps this has been the most difficult part of the whole ordeal, being involved in something that everyone has an opinion on and that’s covered by the media time and time again.

“I really hope that in the future this isn’t a suitable topic of conversation around the coffee table, because I think all of the children who are now adults deserve to be able to get on with our lives and not have to be reminded that we were Civic kids.”

Much of her mother’s anger remains directed at the Christchurch City Council, which ran the creche. She believes that its duty was to oversee the centre’s policy and systems.

“If things were run properly, you could look at a visitors’ book and say for certain these staff and these children were out between 1pm and 3pm. But things had become lax, so when the accusations came out, as wild as they were, you couldn’t say it didn’t happen because there was no safety net.

“The Christchurch City Council was reckless with our children’s safety. Whatever went on at the Civic, the council had no idea, no checks, and at the end of the day walked away unaccountable,” she says. “I’m bloody angry with the council, because it did not do its job.”

Ellis with his mother, Lesley, in 2000. Photo/Getty.

On April 22 this year, the day after Amy Adams rejected the latest call for an inquiry, the topic on Newstalk ZB Christchurch morning host Chris Lynch’s show was, unsurprisingly, Peter Ellis and the Civic Creche. One caller was former city councillor Carole Evans, a representative on the creche committee at the time of the scandal. She told listeners she believed Ellis was innocent, but claimed councillors had been forbidden to voice their opinion.

Overcome by emotion, Evans tearfully continued: “It’s always been a nightmare to me and I think it’s the one time in my council career where I felt, ‘Why didn’t you speak up?’ The only people you could talk to was to come home and tell your family. We were just told to shut up, quite frankly. I just felt if I don’t ring now, I’m going to feel this guilt for the rest of my life.”

Asked what she would say to Ellis if he were listening, her voice broke again. “I guess I’d say I am sorry on behalf of the city; it’s a pity some of us didn’t speak up. I have always felt sorry every time it raises its head. It’s something that’s hard to live with. It was pure panic, pure conjecture… it was those who believed and those who didn’t. And those who didn’t just lost against the law. I honestly hope and pray the case will be reopened.”

Ellis happened to be listening as Evans spoke. It infuriated him.

“Councillor Evans rang crying to say she had nightmares about me. That’s another reason why I’m furious. There are people, talking about me live on air. There was another woman who was a court clerk at the time saying it never should have got through depositions, and then Evans is apologising.

“It’s live on a radio station and no one follows it up. And Amy Adams and that, no one can do fucking anything for me. Evans is crying and he [the radio host] is going, ‘That’s dreadful.’ Well, it’s dreadful for her. What about me?”

In a Queer Nation documentary from 2003, Ellis is more cheerful, describing his disbelief when the allegations emerged. “I sipped on my sherry while everything just ticked along.”

On the evening of March 30, 1992, he heard on the TV news that his arrest was imminent. The following day – his 34th birthday – he was taken to the Christchurch Central police station. “I had three meatballs Susan Devoy could have played squash with for 10 years, mushy green peas and dried potato… that was my birthday tea,” he says, on the documentary.

Eight years later, immediately following his release from prison in February 2000, he held a press conference. Pony-tailed, flanked by his mother and his legal counsel at the time, Judith Ablett Kerr, QC, Ellis vowed to clear his name and prove his innocence – for the sake of the creche children, as well.

Fifteen years on, he feels less sympathy for those children. “Some of them are nearly the age I was [then] and they’re big enough now to know nothing happened.”

His new legal team is Kerry Cook and Nigel Hampton, QC, who picked up the case from Ablett Kerr late last year. Hampton has worked on it before but Cook, 35, was barely a teenager when the allegations erupted.

The current discussion revolves around which legal avenue to pursue next. Three options remain: an appeal to the Privy Council, an appeal to the Supreme Court or an application to the Governor-General for the royal prerogative of mercy.

“I can’t say where we are at right now,” Cook says. “We have got a significant amount of help from the Innocence Project at Otago University. They worked with Judith Ablett Kerr prior to us, and every single week there is work going on in this case. Once we are in a relatively robust position, we will make that decision. You can always bring new evidence in; it could be processes, it could be a retraction, it could be anything.

“The litmus test for new evidence is the interests of justice; if it looks like there has been a miscarriage of justice, they will let any new evidence through. No matter how late it is.”

Peter Ellis in the early 90s, before he was jailed. Photo/Fairfax.

As Ellis walks from his lawyer’s office up Hereford St towards the Botanic Gardens, he points to the scaffold-covered shell of the Dux de Lux site where the creche was located. He looks at the road. “This is where I was supposed to be taking them out through tunnels.”

At the Peacock Fountain entrance to the gardens, locals know the tree that makes a perfect hidey-hole for kids to play during the day. Ellis says he was careful when he took the children there, because he knew boozers gathered under the branches after dark. He dated one of those men.

He says taking children on trips outside the creche was ideal because it meant he could have a cigarette. He also admits to being careless, letting them run to the gate without him. “Tourists would ask who the kids belonged to and I’d eventually sidle up after another smoke and they [the children] would be pointing at me. I’d say, ‘No, I’ve never seen you before.’”

We have lunch at the Ilex cafe, where nobody seems to stare, although Ellis recognises a woman he used to play bridge with.

His nutshelled life goes like this: born in Ormond, near Gisborne, moved to Te Whiti near Masterton when he was about five. The family moved back to Gisborne,  but his parents split up when he was about nine. His mother, to whom he is still very close, took Ellis and his siblings to Port Chalmers. He had the “dubious pleasure” of attending Otago Boys’ High.

From there, they moved to Motueka, and then he left the family nest for England. On returning a year or so later, his mother, siblings and stepfather had moved to Twizel.

“I took one look at Twizel and thought, ‘Where am I going next?’ So I got on the bus to Christchurch. I didn’t know anyone there; I’d never lived there. But I was in Twizel, for God’s sake. The houses were made of ticky-tacky.” And he sings a verse of “Little Boxes”, the protest song about suburbia and conformist middle-class attitudes, over a bowl of fries and a chicken wrap.

He finally agrees I can write one thing about his mother, Lesley. In August, after decades apart, she and his father remarried. The newlyweds went to Europe for their honeymoon.

But enough personal information. It’s back to his case. “Look, we are all aware that child abuse exists, but if the Civic case got sorted, then perhaps some of these other issues, like [not enough] men in teaching, might be sorted. It’s been sorted overseas – it needs to be sorted here.”

Ellis is referring to other allegations of ritualistic abuse that occurred in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s and early 1990s, generally referred to as “Satanic panic”. Some convictions held, but many did not, such as the McMartin Preschool and Kern County cases in California, where convictions of child molestation in daycare centres were overturned after expensive and lengthy trials. In both cases, the prosecution was undone because of biased interviewing techniques and a lack of physical evidence.

Ellis had a heart attack at 47, but his health is now “tickety-boo”. He no longer smokes or drinks, on account of the cost. He’s on “assisted living”, as he wryly calls the unemployment benefit, but would like to do something in the prison system, helping assimilate prisoners when they go inside, and when they come out. He reckons he has too much of a sense of humour to have mental-health problems, and he thinks his face might crack from thanking people so many times who have publicly given him their support.

Author Lynley Hood, whose book A City Possessed raised serious concerns about Ellis’s conviction.  She was attracted to the controversy after researching witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th century. Photo/Sean Waller.
Where David Bain had Joe Karam and Mark Lundy had Geoff Levick, Peter Ellis has something of an advocate in Lynley Hood. Not that she considers herself to be his champion.

A City Possessed, her award-winning book published in 2001, harshly criticised everything from the process of evidence-gathering to individual experts and the parents and grandparents of children who gave evidence.

From her large home on the slopes of Corstorphine, she says controversy attracted her to the story. “I did some research into the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th century and learned about collective delusions, evil groups who worshipped Satan and killed and ate babies and engaged in obscene rituals. Then the creche case was in the paper. At that time, I wasn’t making any judgments, I just thought, ‘Here’s a witch-hunt I can study first-hand.’”

Ellis was in prison when she first interviewed him: “He was really over the top then; he had this mincing gait, with long hair, eyeliner and extravagantly long fingernails.

“From a police point of view, being a gay man was a red flag. And from the militant feminist point of view that was going on at the time, being a man was a red flag. So there were two marks against him already.”

In fact, on Holmes in 1993, Graeme Lee, who was then Minister of Internal Affairs, told Paul Holmes: “Homosexuals had unarguably an unnatural behaviour… In context to [the Ellis case], surely it stands to reason there is a predilection to paedophilia or child sex.”

Hood takes particular aim at psychiatrist Karen Zelas, a key expert witness for the prosecution and now a creative writer in Christchurch. (She did not wish to take part in this article.) Held in high regard as a specialist in child sex abuse cases, Zelas reviewed the children’s evidence. Critics say her sway was a major factor in Ellis’s conviction.

“She was saying things like, ‘If a child says they have been abused, they have been abused. If they say they haven’t, it’s classic denial and they have been abused,’” says Hood.

“As long as nobody involved in the creche case has to admit they made any mistakes,” she goes on, “the demonising of men in childcare will continue.”

Evidence was given by medical practitioners during the trial that at least two of the female child complainants had hymens showing signs “consistent with” abuse or penetration.

Today, the basic outline of a medical examination is similar. However, far more research into the physical signs of abuse is available now. Clare Healy, a forensic physician and director of the Cambridge Clinic in Christchurch, explains that the exam is widely assumed to be invasive but is, in fact, “only an outside look”, with the most common test being a urine sample.

The hymen can often be seen during this external examination, but visibility is highly variable. “Now we have much bigger pieces of research about the huge variation of normal anatomy that wasn’t available before,” she says.

So for historical allegations, how do you really know? “That’s the big question,” says GP Jane Batchelor, an accredited sexual assault medical examiner. “That’s often where expectation of the medical profession is huge. People bring us their precious child hoping we can clarify everything and give them a definitive answer and we cannot. But often parents are very reassured to know their child’s examination is normal.”

Maggy Tai Rakena has been the manager of sexual violence counselling agency START for 21 years. She believes Ellis is guilty and that people’s positions are, and will remain, fixed.

She worked at the creche for almost a decade, but had no crossover with Ellis. “I wasn’t there so I can’t say 100 per cent, but he has been through a solid police and justice procedure and a number of appeals and been found guilty.

“The frustration for me at the time was that people who were professionals in areas of sexual abuse didn’t seem to assist the public to learn more. I remember clearly listening to endless radio, people expressing opinions and saying that because he has vehemently denied it, it must not be true. I thought, ‘If only you had an offender treatment programme state that this is exactly what is normal for someone to say.’

“Child sexual abuse is the last thing people freely admit to. It is the lowest of the pecking order, the unforgivable sin. Sometimes it is flat-out lies, sometimes I think there are cognitive distortions, believing their own version because they are so determined to cover this stuff up.”

She says the country has made huge leaps with the likes of the work by Louise Nicholas, and the Roastbusters scandal has brought sexual violence to the forefront of New Zealanders’ minds.

“We have a reporting rate of about 12 per cent for generic sexual violence. Of those, only about 30 per cent are prosecuted and of that, around 12.5 per cent result in a conviction. Whatever way you cut it, my day job tells me this is a remarkably common matter.

“I said something about the Ellis case recently and the response was, ‘You must be the only person in New Zealand who doesn’t think he’s innocent.’ I said, ‘Well, I am not, but those people who think he is guilty get such a hard time they’re sick of talking about it; they are silent. You will not hear from those people.’

“There is a great deal of injustice that happens around victims of sexual abuse. And yes, there are also many examples of injustice for offenders, but it is my belief this doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

No matter how much people from all sides want the case to be put back in its box, it remains one of this country’s most enduring controversies. Each side thinks that the other is deluded, each side claims if they speak out they are shouted down. But while Ellis is alive and appeal paths are open, he will continue to protest his innocence.

Seagulls in the Botanic Gardens are keenly eyeing his lunch scraps. I ask who might play him if the Civic Creche ever becomes a Sunday movie.  “Julian Clary could have, but he’s a bit past it now,” he says. “I don’t want Brad Pitt or Clooney. Too flashy. Maybe Rowan Atkinson.”

A film, he can ponder. A book? “No way. Who wants to end up in the bargain bin with John Key, Gay Oakes or Joe Karam? It’s my life. I’ll get on with it, thanks very much.”

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of North & South.

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