It rocked New Zealand to its core and consumed media reports throughout the 1990s. Allegations of mass sexual abuse at the Christchurch Civic Creche became one the country’s longest running and most controversial cases – and it’s about to surge back into the public consciousness.
It has been almost 30 years since the man at the centre of the case, childcare worker Peter Ellis, was convicted of abusing seven children in his care. He spent seven years in jail as a result, and died last year of bladder cancer.
Ellis continually maintained proving his innocence was not just important for him and his family, but for the families and children who were involved.
Now, in a landmark case, a Supreme Court judgment into whether Ellis’ convictions should remain upheld is imminent.
In one of the most alarming twists in this ongoing saga, during a 1994 Court of Appeal hearing the child described as the most credible complainant against Ellis sensationally recanted, saying she’d made it up.
That girl and her family have never talked publicly about what happened.
Melanie Reid, who covered the case in the 1990s and 2000s and was the only journalist to interview Ellis following his arrest and during his legal proceedings in the time before he was imprisoned, can now present for the first time, through her parents, the story of the child who recanted – and who until this day is pained and distressed by Ellis’ fate.
Through her mother, we hear of their frustration and anguish that their daughter’s false evidence was relied on, and then her real evidence disregarded, in an exclusive Newsroom interview.
“There was a real panic. The whole thing, when I look back I think, how did we get caught up in this? How did this happen to us? We were a nice nuclear family. We did everything right by our children. And we got caught up in it,” the mother told Newsroom.
When asked how they account for other people in the case who say the abuse did happen, the father of the girl told Newsroom: “I am not qualified to answer that, but there has been a lot of analysis by neuroscientists into similar cases, like McMartin Preschool in California and the daycare case in Massachusetts, who have looked at how memories are created and sustained. I suggest that is an avenue where that question could be answered.”
“I was mortified about the case and what was going on at the time and I remain mortified. Holding down my daughter while she had to have a vaginal examination as well as an invasive AIDS blood test while she was screaming still haunts me to this day.”
The following letter was written by the girl’s mother to then-justice minister Simon Power in the early 2010s. It explains how they became engulfed in a case that would affect the rest of their lives.
The letter has redactions to protect identities:
Dear Simon Power,
I am writing to highlight my concerns about the Peter Ellis ‘Civic Creche’ case.
I am the mother of xxxxx xxxxxxxxxx who was a witness in the trial of Peter Ellis. Xxxxxx was described as “the most credible and compelling witness”.
Subsequent to the guilty verdict and on the first day of the appeal my daughter retracted her story and the charges that related to her were quashed.
“Expert” opinion following this reported that xxxxxx had retracted her story for various reasons, but essentially that she had been sexually abused and that her retraction was a fabrication (as opposed to lying during the initial investigation).
Xxxxxx is now aged 28. She lives overseas and her father and I have recently returned from a visit to her. xxxxxx spoke to us about her ongoing anguish about the injustice that continues to be perpetrated against Peter Ellis. She said that there isn’t a day that goes by when she doesn’t think about Peter, and the events that led to his imprisonment. She said that she continues to feel guilty and depressed about her part in his wrongful incarceration.
Peter Ellis did not abuse our daughter. She only remembers the ‘cool’ things about the Civic Creche. She only remembers Peter being a funny ‘over-the-top’ carer. She remembers him as a good person.
How did we get so caught up in this travesty of justice? My husband and I are sensible people. We are both intelligent professionals. I look back now and see that I was captured by the hype. Xxxxx xxxx [Police detective] spent considerable time with us. He was adamant that xxxxxx had been abused “terribly, horrifically abused”. He insisted we get xxxxxx HIV-AIDS tested “because Peter Ellis abused her, and he has AIDS”. I will always remember the horror of holding my daughter down with two other people while her femoral artery was tapped for blood. She was HIV negative. That was abuse!
Xxxxx xxxx [Police detective] got drunk at our home and abused us verbally when we expressed concern about the whole investigation and the doubts that we had about the direction it was going in. He told us that if we withdrew from the trial that we would be as “perverted as Peter Ellis” and that we would be responsible for a “filthy bastard kiddie #@## going free”. He insisted that xxxxxx’s evidence was the most credible and believable of all the children interviewed and that the trial would be seriously compromised without her.
Xxxxxx was interviewed 4 (possibly 5) times. I understand that she denied any abuse during her initial interviews. She disclosed abuse in the last interview(s).
I was contacted by other parents who said that xxxxxx’s name had come up ‘numerous times’ during their children’s interviews, and that xxxxxx had suffered terrible abuse. One mother told me that Lesley Ellis (Peter’s mother) had also abused xxxxxx.
xxxxxx’s evidence was described as ‘compelling’. She was the most credible child witness.
xxxxxx’s evidence was a fabrication. None of the abuse she described happened.
She told her father and me that she just started with a ‘wee story’, and that it just grew.
During our recent holiday with xxxxxx she spoke with clarity and strength about being ‘rewarded’ for telling the interviewers what she thought they wanted to hear. She spoke about the ‘rewards’ we gave her after the interview (McDonalds and a small toy of choice). She talked about the therapy she received. She said she felt so ashamed of telling such awful lies that she was completely silent during the therapy sessions and that this was subsequently interpreted as ‘extreme trauma’.
But perhaps the most distressing thing for our daughter is the ongoing guilt and shame she feels for fabricating a story which led to the conviction and imprisonment of an innocent man.
XxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxXxxxXxXx. Her adult life has seen her feel overwhelmed and isolated many times. XxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxXxxxxxxXxX
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxXxxxXxXx Not because she has been a victim of sexual abuse, but because she was a victim of zealous interviewers, policemen, and therapists.
She was believed when she was being dishonest, and wasn’t believed when she tried to right the wrong! It was convenient to have xxxxxx’s original story, because so much rested on it.
Xxxxxx was just a 7 year old child. She was not sophisticated. She had no idea when she started her ‘wee story’ what the consequences would be. She was not vindictive; she did not set out to destroy Peter Ellis. She was caught up in an event that grew much bigger than anyone could have imagined. It has had a huge impact on her life.
Xxxxxx has never been interviewed during the subsequent Thomas Eichelbaum inquiry. We have never been interviewed. Peter Ellis continues to be a victim of a bizarre set of circumstances.
Xxxxxx wants justice for Peter Ellis.
We want justice for Peter Ellis. We want our daughter to be believed. That ‘wee story that just grew’ was just that. A story created by a child who enjoyed the attention and positive reinforcement she received.
I respectfully ask that there is urgency given to ensuring that the appalling circumstances and manipulations that led to the conviction of Peter Ellis are fully investigated and that he does receive justice. XxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxXxxxXxXx