By Jarrod Gilbert

Eighteen years ago this month, Peter Ellis left prison. He ought never to have been there in the first place.

Ellis, of course, was convicted of child abuse at the Christchurch Civic Crèche. It remains one of New Zealand's most controversial cases, and one that Labour and New Zealand First's proposed Criminal Cases Review Commission would do well to address.

If all the allegations were to be believed, Ellis was involved in making children dance naked while some were placed in an oven or suspended in a cage. Others were buried alive, and one child was forced to kill another. One unfortunate lad was turned into a frog and a cat. Needless to say the evidence for these events was not strong.


Because the allegations of abuse were so numerous, though, investigators concluded that many people must have been involved in the nefarious goings on.

In one police interview, when asked for the names of the men responsible, one child replied: "Spike, Boulderhead, Yuckhead and, um, and Stupidhead".

Yet Spike, Boulderhead, Yuckhead and Stupidhead remained at large while four female caregivers were arrested, although charges against them were eventually dropped. That left Peter Ellis to stand in the dock alone.

Convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, Ellis refused to attend parole hearings knowing he would have to confess to the crimes in order to argue for early release. Not on your nelly, he thought.

Today, it's been said that Ellis resembles a retired geography teacher from a conservative school but back then he looked like a weirdo. And, by most accounts, he was a weirdo. But as it currently stands, and as was the case then, being a weirdo is not a criminal offence.

Anyway, the real weirdness was not that which Ellis embraced, it was the weirdness that shadowed much of the world. This was a far more sinister weirdness.

In the 1980s, ideas of 'satanic ritual abuse' became rife in America as bizarre reports that Satanists were abducting and ritually murdering children spread across the country.

Before being dismissed as bogus and dubbed 'satanic panic' concerns around fantastic and elaborate child abuse came to New Zealand and settled on Peter Ellis, after a child said they had seen his "black penis".

As bad luck would have it, around that time a psychological dogma had become popular that suggested children never lie (a claim laid potentially false by the fact the little sods lie almost constantly).

Probing interview techniques were also developed — that have subsequently been discredited and banned — that were extremely good at getting children to talk to therapist investigators but equally good at encouraging fabricated stories.

Faulty psychology, a moral panic, and fantastic claims by kids were the ingredients for a case in Christchurch so bizarre it's now scarcely imaginable.

At the time, graffiti around Christchurch read "BELIEVE THE CHILDREN".

Certainly some people weren't keen on believing Ellis because he was gay.

Graeme Lee, then Minister of Internal Affairs, said that because homosexuality was "unarguably an unnatural behavior… surely it stands to reason there is a predilection to paedophilia or child sex".

Many of those who maintain the gravest concerns about the safety of Peter Ellis's convictions are a who's who of this country's criminal justice elite but one deserves special mention.

Former High Court judge Sir Thomas Thorp investigated the case in detail and was so concerned that he argued that New Zealand needed a Criminal Cases Review Commission; a means to help uncover miscarriages of justice.

Based on research he did in the UK, where such bodies exist, Sir Thomas concluded in 2005 that there would likely be 20 people in New Zealand's prisons at any one time who were wrongly convicted.

While supported by many in the justice sector, for years Thorp's calls for a review commission fell on deaf political ears. Those in power have often proven reluctant to acknowledge errors in the justice system, fearing, I guess, that highlighting fallibility undermines integrity. The reverse is, of course, true.

All of a sudden this thinking has changed. The new Government has agreed to establish a Criminal Cases Review Commission. Arguably, it stands to be the single most significant development in New Zealand's justice realm since the establishment of the Supreme Court in 2004.

Many will immediately know the names Arthur Allan Thomas, David Dougherty and Teina Pora. I hope one day Peter Ellis is added to that list.

Until then, there ought be a column like this written every time we begin to forget his name.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.