Civic Creche Case, Christchurch1
by Felicity Goodyear-Smith*
ABSTRACT: Allegations of children being sexually abused by workers in
child care centers are now becoming common throughout the Western world
Frequently these cases follow a similar pattern whereby a concerned
interprets a symptom or behavior of her child as indicating sexual abuse
and activates investigations by other parents and the authorities.
Although they initially deny any molestation, repeated interrogations
eventually lead to children claiming increasingly perverted and bizarre
events, naming more and more child victims and adult perpetrators.
Allegations typically involve consuming urine and feces, penetrating
body orifices with fingers, objects and penises, "sex rings," making child
pornography, animal and human sacrifice, and even eating dead babies.
objective evidence is ever found to support these claims. Although the
initial allegation may be unfounded the investigation will gather
momentum and result in many people convinced in the truth of the
children's "disclosures," public outrage, and long, expensive trials
which are traumatic to all concerned. Children who report such
stories generally only start manifesting signs and symptoms of emotional
distress after they have "told." This account describes a case at
the Civic Creche, Christchurch, New Zealand which demonstrates a clear parallel
to similar cases in other parts of the world.
Allegations of children being molested in day care centers by staff
members have proliferated in the last few years until they are now
virtually a commonplace phenomenon. The most famous and sensational of
these cases have occurred in the United States (in particular, the McMartin Preschool, Country Walk Babysitting Service
and Wee Care Day Nursery cases) but similar cases are now occurring in
other parts of the world, including Britain, Australia, Canada, and New
Most of these cases follow what is now a very familiar pattern. Initially, a child attending the center presents with a problem
behavior, one of the many behaviors considered to be "indicators
of sexual abuse." This leads a parent or someone in authority to
suspect that the child has probably been sexually abused. Alternatively, the child may be referred for "expert"
evaluation of the problem by someone who routinely suspects sexual
abuse as the prime factor in problem behavior. Interrogating the child
will usually result in denial, but this may be seen to confirm the
diagnosis, as children are believed to be too scared to tell and need
lots of encouragement to do so.
Eventually, this encouragement results in the child revealing
abuse. Ongoing disclosure interviews using leading questioning and
selective reinforcement result in the child giving more and more
details of increasingly perverse and bizarre events. Other children
and adults become implicated, until stories develop of "sex
rings." Classically, the stories start to include details such as
activities involving the children naked in a circle, and making them
eat feces or drink urine. Sometimes it is claimed that the children
have to watch babies or animals being sacrificed or practice
cannibalism. There are often claims of the adults being dressed as
witches or monsters, or wearing masks. It is believed that they
sexually violate the children with fingers, mouths, or genitals in
every conceivable orifice. Often it is claimed that the adults take
photographs or videotape these events.
The allegations and numbers of suspects begin to mount only after
the investigators and child abuse agency workers enter the scene, and both parents and children become
convinced of the reality of the abuse. Often, the parents regularly
question their children and keep records of what the children say along
with logs of suspicious behaviors.
Usually, the majority of the children will have been presenting as
well-adjusted to their parents and others, giving no indication that
they were actually suffering terrible ongoing abuse. It is only after
the events are "disclosed" that many of these children start
to develop signs of emotional distress, such as nightmares, aggression
and sometimes inappropriate sexual behavior.
Despite extensive investigations, none of these claims have ever
been objectively verified no props or clothes discovered, no
pornography found, and no record of any babies murdered. However, even
in cases where the alleged offenders are acquitted, most of the
children, their families and the sexual abuse investigators, remain
convinced that the abuse really did happen. The lack of evidence just
confirms how fiendishly clever the abusers are.
A similar child care case has recently surfaced in Christchurch,
New Zealand. In March 1992, a 34-year-old child care worker with the
Civic Childcare Center, Peter Ellis, was charged with indecently
assaulting a child in his care. By the following October, these
charges had escalated to 45 counts of indecent assault.
The original complaint stemmed from a boy who attended the creche
telling his mother in November 1991 that he "didn't like Peter's
black penis." Although he then explained that this remark was
"only a story," his mother interpreted his statement to mean
that he had been sexually interfered with by Ellis. His mother had
worked in the sexual abuse counseling area for most of her adult life
and was a founder member of START, a private sexual abuse therapy
organization which emphasized always "believing the child"
and working to "unlock all the pain, bad memories and
feelings" of sexual abuse. She also identified herself as a
victim of childhood sexual abuse (Ansley, 1993). This woman took it upon herself to contact
other parents of children attending the creche, and coordinate sessions
discussing possible abuse of their children by Ellis (Brett, 1993).
acted as an informal social worker for these families, and led several
parents' meetings, until the formal appointment of a professional
(Samson, 1993). Her son did not, in fact, disclose abuse during a
subsequent evidential interview.
Ellis was suspended from work and a meeting was held at the creche.
This was attended by staff members, a group of concerned parents, and
representatives from the Social Welfare Department. In December,
1991, Sue Sidey, a Department psychologist, interviewed six children
for whom she felt there were some grounds for concern. The children
made no disclosures of any indecent touching by a creche staff member.
The police decided there was no case to answer and closed the
However, by now some of the parents believed that their children
had been seriously sexually abused, and continued to contact Sidey,
requesting that their children be investigated. Other children
underwent a series of disclosure interviews in February and March
1992, at least some of which were videotaped. On March 30, 1992, Ellis
was charged with five counts of indecent assault of preschool
The following evening the police and the Social Welfare Department
held a meeting with parents of children who had attended the creche.
Parents whose children who had been there as far back as 1986 were
invited by letter to attend. City Counselors were also present (the
creche was owned by the City Council) but all creche staff members
were excluded from the meeting. Parents were told how to identify signs
of sexual abuse, but were asked not to question their children
themselves, to avoid contaminating any evidence. Despite this, parents
inevitably exchanged details with each other about what other children
were apparently alleging and asked their own children if these things
had happened to them. One mother admitted in court that she had
cuddled her son, praising him and saying how brave he was after he
revealed more and more details of his abuse.
More children were interviewed, and Ellis' charges began to
escalate. Children were now alleging that he had urinated on their
faces, made them drink cups of his urine and eat his feces, touched
them genitally whilst being naked himself from the waist down, and
poked sticks into vaginas and a needle into one child's anus. One girl
said she had watched Ellis having sex with a woman preschool worker in
the toilets. Two or three children claimed he had hung them in cages
from the ceiling at the creche and elsewhere. They had not told any
other adults about these things before because Ellis had threatened to
kill them if they told.
Some of the co-workers at the creche said that it was impossible
for most of the alleged events to have occurred, even in the preschool
toilets, as there were always a number of staff around along with
students from the College of Education and parents would also visit
frequently and randomly. Ellis had taken groups of children on walks
away from the center on occasion, but the other staff members did not
believe he had abused them during these trips. None of the children
had shown signs of distress, which would be expected if such traumatic
things were happening to them.
Other people began to be implicated. One child claimed a group of
children had been taken away from the creche, made to stand naked in a
circle and kick each other, while women creche workers danced naked
around them and pretended to have sex. He said an adult man (not
Ellis) had inserted a needle-like object into his (the child's) penis.
Another child said he had been made to visit a church where two
children had been dressed up and undergone a mock marriage, and had
been to a graveyard where he had been locked in a cage with a cat and
had seen a friend of Ellis buried in a box in the ground. This child
implicated five teenagers, "a group of men with slanted
eyes," and 22 other people. Other children claimed they had been
filmed whilst made to suffer indecencies. There were stories about
being locked in underground tunnels or secret places in the roof of
the creche. Eventually 10 past and present creche workers were named
as having had some involvement in the activities.
Rumors started to abound the creche was involved in organized
ritualistic abuse, Japanese businessmen had been paying to have sexual
contact with the children, Ellis and others were involved in wide
scale production of child pornography. One mother requested the court
pay for an overseas author on ritualistic abuse to be brought to New
Zealand to assist in the inquiry the court did not comply, however.
Exhaustive investigations by the police failed to uncover any
objective evidence. They found no pornography, no cages, or hooks
these could have hung from. A cavity in the creche ceiling where some
of the offenses where alleged to have occurred revealed no
fingerprints of either Ellis or the children. Underground tunnels were
Medical examination of the children likewise revealed no supportive
evidence of abuse. The nature of many of the alleged offenses would
not be expected to produce physical signs, however, so this did not
refute most of the accusations.
In October 1992, four women creche workers were also arrested and
charged with indecent assault. The claims now had a flavor of satanic
ritual abuse. Accusations were made that children were taken to a
private home, made to spend time in a tunnel under the house, and then
forced to stand naked inside a circle of adults, including three of
these women. There were also charges regarding involving the children
in making child pornography. One woman was charged with the indecent
act of having sex with Ellis in the center's toilets.
By now Ellis faced 45 counts of indecent assault between December
1986 and February 1992, involving 20 children aged between 2 and 6
The defendants were all at large on bail. In November 1992, four
men went to Ellis' home and threatened to kill him. He was beaten
about the head with a wooden baton, and one of the men was later
sentenced to six months imprisonment for assault. He explained his
actions by saying that he knew Ellis was guilty and it was his
"civic duty" to kill him. The town was in an uproar.
Graffiti was posted proclaiming the women's guilt; Ellis and one of
the women defendants were sent bullets with their names engraved on
The depositions hearing started in November and continued into the
New Year. The investigators had interrogated 116 children, and 40
hours of videotaped interviews with 20 children were screened in a
closed court. The interrogating psychologist, Sue Sidey, revealed that
some children had been interviewed several times, up to a maximum of
six separate disclosure interviews. All interview details were
suppressed from the public. By the end of the depositions, some of the
charges against the women were dropped, because the child making the
allegations against them would not now be available to give evidence
at a trial. Reasons were not given although it was suggested in the
newspapers that the child's parents had "backed out" of the
In March 1993, a High Court judge heard submissions at a pretrial
hearing. The evidence submitted was publicly suppressed, but the judge
dismissed the remaining charges against the women on the grounds of
insufficient evidence. The charge relied on statements from one little
boy about the "circle incident," and an adult inserting a
needle-like object into his penis. There was no supporting evidence
from people named by the child, no corroboration from any of the other
children he claimed to be present, and no medical evidence of injury.
The judge also decided on this action to ensure this child did not
have to give evidence at two trials (the women's and Ellis from whom
they had severance). Many of the charges against Peter Ellis were also
dropped, but he still faced 25 allegations.
Several children had recanted their evidence. One 7-year-old girl
admitted that she learnt her story "before she went on the screen"
and under cross-examination said that the interviewer had "taught
me what Peter did." A 4-year-old girl told the court that her
statement to the interviewer when she was 3 about Ellis "doing
wees" on her was a "wrong thing" and had not happened.
Another child similarly admitted that his claim that Ellis had
urinated on his face was a trick and "not really true."
However, when confronted in court with the video interview of his
initial allegation, he changed his story again and said he was
Trial by Jury
The trial was heard before a jury in May 1993. Peter Ellis denied
all 25 charges. Again, much of the evidence was suppressed, but relied
heavily on the disclosure interview videotapes.
Dr. Keith Le Page, an Australian psychiatrist for the defense, told
the court that none of the children showed signs of distress he would
have expected in children recalling incidents of the abuse alleged.
Some of the children were said to be suffering from nightmares and
phobias, but it seemed that reports of these problems only began after
the investigation had started.
It was disclosed in court that Ellis is bisexual, and that he often
indulged in outrageous and provocative sexual talk designed to shock
his fellow workers, which he freely admits. He was a flamboyant man
who enjoyed teasing and playing tricks on both adults and children.
report submitted to the police by a psychologist from a local
counseling service claimed that such behavior had all the hallmarks of
his being a sex offender and should have alerted creche management.
Others argued that child sex offenders are usually very good at
disguising themselves as respectable citizens and that 92% are
The trial lasted six weeks. At the end of the day, the jury decided
to believe the testimony of the children. They found Ellis guilty of
16 of the 25 allegations. They accepted as proved beyond reasonable
doubt that he had sexually abused seven of the children, sometimes in
the presence of others. Some of the incidents had happened at places
outside the creche and he had provided children for abuse by other
people. One of the witnesses in Ellis' trial was the child whose
evidence had led to the women's arrest but had been considered
insufficient to convict them. Although the jury dismissed a charge
involving the "circle" incident, they returned a guilty
verdict on three other charges relating to his evidence.
Ellis was sentenced to 10 years in jail. His fellow creche workers
and supporters are calling for an inquiry into the authorities'
investigation of the case. Ellis still adamantly protests his
innocence, and has apparently appealed the verdict. In the meanwhile,
he is serving time in the maximum security wing of Paparua prison.
The evidence in this case is fraught with contradictions. Some of
the children's testimony was obviously not reliable and many of the
allegations were clearly fantasy or fabrication. Ellis was claimed to
have put children in steaming ovens. A little boy said that Ellis then
took him out and pretended to eat him. There were claims that Ellis
had pulled off a little boy's penis with pliers, killed young boys
with axes, and squashed children in doorways until they vomited
One child said that a creche woman had put a knife in her vagina.
The little boy who had made claims about the "circle
incident" and whose evidence had resulted in some of Ellis'
convictions, also claimed that two creche workers had made him kill
another child, who had been buried in a box in the ground.
The Crown contended that Ellis cleverly interwove tricks and
fantasy into the abuse so that the children would recall the two
together. How the court was supposed to differentiate between actual
events and make-believe was not clarified.
I met with the four women defendants during their deposition
hearings. They said that although the claims the children were making
on the videotaped interviews were preposterous, sometimes they
recognized elements of the allegations as highly distorted versions of
stories the children had heard or actual events they knew the children
Although they had their charges dropped, the fact that they did not
go to trial meant that they did not have the chance to prove their
innocence and be acquitted. This is an apparent anomaly in that if the
women were innocent and knew nothing about the abuse, it is very
difficult to explain how Ellis could have got away with such ongoing
behavior over five years without detection.
Some parents are sure that nothing ever happened to the children.
One mother, whose child gave evidence at depositions, decided to pull
out before the High Court trial, even though the police were convinced
her child had been abused. She could not believe that her child could
have suffered such terrible abuse and still behave so normally.
Others believe that what came out in court is only a fraction of
what happened to their children, who were the subjects of extensive
organized abuse involving satanic ritual, pornography manufacture and
Whatever the historical truths of this case, the costs have been
very high. Financially, the cost of bringing the case to court was
estimated to be well in excess of $1 million. The Christchurch City
Council closed the creche, and as well as suffering loss of revenue,
it had to pay over $200,000 in redundancy pay. It paid the salary and
car for a social worker to support the victims, and met the costs of
facilitating and running meetings and support groups for the families
involved. It now faces legal action from 13 staff who are suing for
$2.8 million in compensation for wrongful dismissal, and some parents
are talking about suing it for negligence as licensee of the creche.
The Accident Compensation Commission has paid an undisclosed sum for
counseling for some of the children.
The highest price, however, is the emotional costs of this case. Whether the children were actually abused or whether they have come to
believe they have been abused, they are apparently now suffering from
a variety of psychological and behavioral problems, including
excessive fearfulness and nightmares. Over 100 families have had
their lives disrupted by this process. Adults who were previously
close friends have found themselves split into two enemy camps, the
"believers" of the children or the supporters of the
defendants. A number of competent child care workers have lost their
jobs and many vow they would never risk working with children again.
The women defendants and their families have suffered the emotional
and financial strains associated with the charges, and still have to
face the fact that many of the public are not convinced of their
And finally, there is Ellis. If, in fact, he committed those acts
for which he has been found guilty, then justice has to some degree
been served. If, however, he is innocent of all charges, which he
still maintains, then he has been branded an evil perverted monster, had
his life threatened, and lost his freedom, on the basis of false
Ansley, B. (1993, July 10). Judgement in Christchurch, Listener, pp. 20-25.
Brett, C. (1993). Beyond the Civic Creche case, North and South,
Chrichton, S. (1993, June 11). Child's remark launches inquiry, Waikato
Samson, A. (1993, June 20). Another male creche worker earlier
accused of abuse by Ellis accuser. Sunday Times, p.6.
1This article is expanded from a section of Dr. Goodyear-Smith's
book, First Do No Harm: The Sexual Abuse Industry (), 1993, Auckland, New
Zealand: Benton-Guy Publishers. [Back]
* Felicity Goodyear-Smith is a
general practitioner at Wrights Road,
RD2 Albany, New Zealand. [Back]