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Sunday Star Times, New Zealand, September 30 2001 Page C5

A new book on the Peter Ellis case concludes he was the innocent victim of a city in the grip of mass hysteria.

Donna Chisholm reports.

Ellis in blunderland

OPEN Lynley Hood's latest book like an onion and peel back layer after layer of injustice. Read it and weep. Put the cops in the Peter Ellis case on trial, along with the sex abuse industry, social welfare and the judiciary and return the verdicts. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

And Ellis? Convict him of having a big mouth and long fingernails. But sexually abusing kids? No way.

Hood's A City Possessed on the Christchurch Civic Creche case of the early 1990s lobs the criminal justice system its biggest grenade since Arthur Allan Thomas was pardoned. She's heard families at the centre of the case have been alerted to pre-pare for tomorrow's publication. "Perhaps there will be a whole new category of ACC claims - people trau-matised by Lynley Hood's book," she says laconically.

Hood, 58, a meticulous former medical researcher with books on Winton "baby farmer" Minnie Dean and educationalist Sylvia Ashton-Warner behind her, says she went into the Ellis case with an open mind. After all, her investigations found Dean guilty of killing one of the babies she was hanged for murdering. She was finishing the Dean book when Ellis was jailed for 10 years in June 1993 on 16 counts of abusing children at the crèche (three charges were later overturned when a child retracted her allegations).

The sort of moral panic and urban myth which swept Dean to the gallows were fresh in her mind. Her aim in the crèche case "was to get to the bottom of the story, to find out what did and didn't happen". The extent of what she unearthed in her seven year search for answers disturbed her.

"We were in the US when the Watergate story was exposed. It started with one cop being puzzled by this door he'd closed and he came back and found it taped open. . . that was kind of like I went into it. Two things didn't add up, how do you explain it?

Take the growth of sexual abuse claims in the 1980s - a field she re-searched in depth in the course of the book. "The question I asked myself was how come all these untrained, unsupervised people are diagnosing sexual abuse on extremely dubious grounds at the taxpayers expense and I thought there would be a simple explanation.

"But once you start digging back you just uncover layer after layer of disquieting material that never seems to have been properly assessed at the time, I guess because it's easier at any given point to accept it rather than challenge it."

To those familiar with Hood, the strength of her conviction that Ellis is innocent may be surprising. "I am not one to take sides. I have spent my life standing on the sidelines when the people waving placards and chanting go by and I'm saying how can you be so sure you're right? It is totally out of character for me to be saying wrong, wrong, wrong, to the [???}

She says by being so emphatic that there was no injustice, Justice Minister Phil Goff and former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum have highlighted the limitations of the legal system.

To keep denying the discrepancies "when it is blindingly obvious that the rest of the world knows there are holes you can drive a bus through, just makes the justice system look ridiculous".

The justice system, she says, is in-capable of admitting it makes mistakes. On top of that, the Ellis case judge, the late Neil Williamson, was justifiably loved and highly respected, and it was unthinkable to most that he could have given Ellis an unfair trial.

"But he just seemed to have been swept along in the whole panic."

Williamson's rulings before and during the trial meant Ellis' lawyer Rob Harrison was effectively ham-strung - the jury did not get to hear the most bizarre of the children's allegations, but did learn of the highly prejudicial but irrelevant conversations Ellis had about unusual sexual practices between consenting adults.

Hood theorises the Doomsday clock for Ellis began to tick in the mid 1970s with the hijacking of the feminist movement by the all-men-are-rapists division. Until about 1975, she says, men and women worked together for equality, the enemy sexism. After that, the enemy was men. "There is a whole generation of women brought up to believe that this is the norm, that even the most decent of men is in part a dangerous sexual predator." The clock ticked closer to midnight in 1989 with changes to the Evidence Act which made it easier for prosecutors to gain convictions in child sex abuse cases without reliable evidence. Sex abuse against children became "crimen exceptum" - a crime distinct from all others - and the normal safe-guards which protected defendants from wrongful conviction were side-lined.

"Judges weighed the requirement tin the act to minimise stress on the complainant against the requirement to 'ensure a fair trial for the accused'. More often than not, they ruled in favour of the complainant."

By 1991, [when the first complaint was made against Ellis], effective control of the investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse had shifted from the justice system to the child protection movement. "After that - in New Zealand in general and in Christchurch in particular - suspected child molesters were prosecuted more vigorously and convicted more often."

Why Christchurch? Eccentrics and fanatics in most places, says Hood, are more often than not patted on the head and told to keep taking the pills. In Christchurch, a hotbed of fundamentalist extremes, they gather a following, attract influential patrons and go on to change the world. Christchurch in the late 1980s also spawned the great child pornography ring of which police spent countless hours in vain pursuit. Hood is convinced it never existed.

It was also home to Christchurch Hospital's ward 24, the child psychiatry unit at the centre of a raft of com-plaints from families destroyed by false allegations of sex abuse after their children had been treated there.

Ellis worked at the crèche for five years before the first complaint against him. But he was probably at risk from the day he started, says Hood. At the end of his trial, the guilty verdicts involved seven children - five of their parents worked in the sexual abuse field. These were hyper vigilant parents when it came to inappropriate touching - any man who worked there would have been vulnerable, says Hood. But Hood believes the parents should not shoulder the blame.

"The world is full of people who believe they've been abducted by flying saucers, but the difference is police, social welfare and other agencies don't take them seriously."

The law changes which allowed sex abuse charges to be prosecuted more readily was fed by the myth that "in the bad old days", child abuse was ignored, she says.

"I was browsing through an 1871 newspaper looking for something else and came across the case of a 10-year-old who had been raped and not told her parents straight away - normally that's seen as a reason for doubting the complainant. But she gave her evidence and told her story in open court and was believed, and you couldn't have got a more patriarchal society than in 1871."

The Evidence Act was changed by a political agenda, rather than need, she says, and needs to be changed back. It allowed counsellors spouting opinions with no scientific basis to back a child's story of abuse.

"What's the point of having a law which says you can say something is consistent with the child having been abused when nothing is inconsistent with abuse?" But Hood says there are no easy answers when it comes to improving the system to protect those whose complaints are genuine. "One of the lessons of my book is to beware of people who claim they have got the answers. Muddling on in doubt and confusion is probably the best way to go."

But what of the "children don't lie" theory? "Maybe they don't lie but they can be easily manipulated into saying what they think the person talking to them wants them to say and they can easily invent things or become confused. There are any number of reasons for children saying what they say, it doesn't necessarily mean it is the objective truth."

Hood says the course of her crèche investigation became "shock after shock after shock". She was amazed at how the case snowballed so effectively with so little to bind it. "At every level I thought what would be grounds for taking this action and then I thought that's it? That's IT? They called a meeting on the basis of this? They arrested him on the basis of that?"

Hood says she was open to finding evidence against Ellis right to the end but found nothing. She accepts she did not interview any of the complain-ant children but rejects the notion that she might not have got the full story as a result. "They have been grilled to within an inch of their lives for years, so I certainly wasn't going to add to that. I find it very hard to believe that they would have any idea what was real and what was put into their heads in the course of interrogation."

She spoke to "a couple" of the complainant parents and made repeated attempts to contact the rest, without success.

She interviewed Ellis in prison - he was released last year - and found not a hint of self pity; his sense of humour intact. "I asked him for biographical information," says Hood. He raised an eyebrow and replied "How graphical do you want it to be?" That he has emerged from seven years jail, his spirit undaunted, points to a character with more steel than many imagined, she says. "Obviously he would rather not have been in prison but I think he found it a huge adventure."

Apart from the lack of evidence against him, says Hood, there are other pointers to Ellis' innocence - when his council employers twice came to him during the police investigation and offered him $10,000 to go quietly, he refused, saying he wanted his job back. "You would think if he was a paedophile who had almost been caught, he would have taken the money and run."

Another pointer, says Hood, was that he hated toileting children and would do anything to get out of it. Not the behaviour of a paedophile who would see it as an opportunity. "Then there was the fact that he was looking after all these kids brought up from birth to scream blue murder if anyone touched them inappropriately and during his time there up until that allegation for five years all these children of sex abuse workers were perfectly happy and never said boo……" And of course no inmate laid a fin-ger on him in prison.

Publication of A City Possessed was delayed more than a year by a dispute between Hood and her former publisher, Canterbury University Press, which wanted to heavily edit the t 230,000-word manuscript.

"At the lowest moment I thought what does it matter if this book isn't published for another 50 years? And then I thought no, the people who don't want it published will have won and it will let down those who have done so much to make it happen."

Hood hopes at the least her book will lead to a pardon for Ellis; at best a commission of inquiry into the criminal justice system. "But maybe all that will happen is that I will be able to live with myself in my old age."

A City Possessed - The Christ-church Civic Crèche Case, Lynley Hood, Longacre Press, NZ$59.95


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