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 parent 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.  No 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 Zealand.

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.

Initial Complaint

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).  She 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 investigation.

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 children.

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.

Charges Escalate

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 not located.

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 years.

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 them.

Pretrial Hearings

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 case.

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 "not tricking."

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.  A 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 heterosexual.

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 (Brett, 1993).

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 had experienced.

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 child prostitution.


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 innocence.

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 allegations.


Ansley, B. (1993, July 10). Judgement in Christchurch, Listener, pp. 20-25.

Brett, C. (1993). Beyond the Civic Creche case, North and South, Wellington.

Chrichton, S. (1993, June 11). Child's remark launches inquiry, Waikato Times.

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 (Out of Print), 1993, Auckland, New Zealand: Benton-Guy Publishers.  [Back]

* Felicity Goodyear-Smith is a general practitioner at Wrights Road, RD2 Albany, New Zealand.  [Back]


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