Steve Braunias: Cabals, Satanic symbols and the awful, enduring case of Peter Ellis


Back, once more, to the strange, awful and enduring case of Peter Ellis, with its talk of cabals and Satanic symbols, its accusations of an amazingly wide range of deranged sexual acts performed on pre-school children, its experts on memory and abuse wandering through the dark, unknowable caves of what a child thinks and what a child remembers, its little army of legal minds picking over the reputation of a dead man.

Ellis was convicted at his 1993 trial of 16 charges regarding seven children who attended the Christchurch Crèche. Various attempts at appeals and pardons failed. He served seven years of his 10-year jail sentence and died in 2019, aged 61.

It’s not every day the Supreme Court hears a posthumous appeal, but so little has ever been ordinary or reasoned about the conviction of the crèche worker with long fingernails and rings on every finger.

And so five judges have assembled in Wellington, led by Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann. Week two of the appeal began on Tuesday morning. John Billington QC, a mild old gent from Auckland, appeared for the Crown. Rob Harrison leads the defence for Ellis, just as he did at the trial in 1993. Zoom makes most people look younger and to attend the hearing by remote video was to marvel at how little Harrison seems to have aged in nearly 30 years.

The central thrust of Harrison’s argument on Tuesday was that the investigation interviews with the crèche children were “contaminated”. He said children were shown Satanic symbols. There was, he said, “an air of accusation”. It influenced and shaped the testimony of the children and was led, he said, “by a cabal of parents”.

Winkelmann: “Don’t use that word, Mr Harrison.”

“By,” he corrected himself, “a number of parents.”

But no one challenged him when he really very colourfully described the concerns spread by the cabal, sorry, the number of parents: “It was as contaminating as the Delta virus.”

Harrison pointed to new studies which have undermined the interview techniques used at the time of the Ellis investigation. Billington, in his mild and pleasant way, expressed zero confidence in these studies, and arrived at a beautiful phrase: the interviews had an “ecological validity”. They took place with real children, in a real case, and that was more important than some academic project.

Harrison, the Dorian Gray of Christchurch, expressed zero confidence in the apparent philistinism of Billington’s argument. He said, “Ecological validity argues that experimental studies can’t replicate the intensity of the emotions or severity of sexual abuse. Now that’s absolutely correct. It cannot, and it is repugnant to even begin to think it does. But what research does tell us is that contamination factors have an impact on the malleability of children’s memory.”

Winkelmann wanted to know what he really, truly felt about ecological validity. Harrison reached for a mixed metaphor, and answered: “It is a red herring that I am trying to put to bed.”

But what about the sheer number of allegations against Ellis, and the similarity of the awful charges? Justice Glazebrook asked Harrison, “Is your case that the degree of contact between parents meant that one child’s allegation became another child’s allegation?”

Yes, he replied.

Justice Glazebrook then asked, “Is your case that all of the allegations of all of the children is contaminated?”

Yes, sort of, he replied. “There’s a risk.”

The earthquake that was felt in the North Island interrupted the hearing. But only for a few seconds. No one seemed to think it was anything out of the ordinary, and the case of Peter Ellis continued.

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