NZ SUNDAY STAR-TIMES
25 March 2001,
"Focus" Pages C3 and C4.
by Lynley Hood
Dunedin author Lynley Hood's long-awaited book on the Christchurch creche abuse case will be published in October. But in an essay in a book out next month she comments on the factors which may have led to Peter Ellis' prosecution.
[photo inset: Lynley Hood believes Peter Ellis was the victim of a witch-hunt]
WHEN I began investigating the Christchurch Civic Child Care Centre case, the question underpinning my research was this: to what extent were the staff of the centre involved in child sexual abuse? I expected, sooner or later, to uncover some real-life happenings on which, rightly or wrongly, the allegations of criminality were based.
But, after years of dredging through the mire in which the story had foundered, I found no evidence of illegality by anyone accused in this case. Instead, I found convincing evidence that more than 100 Christchurch children had been subjected to unpleasant and psychologically hazardous procedures for no good reason, and that a group of capable and caring adults with no inclinations towards sexual misconduct with children had had their lives ruined as a result.
This disquieting outcome drew my focus from the creche to the forces that had brought about its downfall. Ultimately, the question was this: how on earth did the complainant families, the child protection services, the police, the justice system and the government get it so wrong?
The project that began as an investigation into a single criminal case, escalated into an intensive study of the last 30 years of New Zealand social history and of much more besides.
The story began in the 1970s, when a clamour of competing social movements, each with its own agenda and each with its own moral entrepreneurs, vied for public and political attention. Then, in the early '80s, three major social streams "feminism, religious conservatism and the child protection movement" joined forces under the banner of combating child sexual abuse. The resulting coalition surged through the '80s and beyond, gathering size and power along the way, sweeping over, around or away most of the obstacles in its path.
The primary goal of '70s feminism was to free women from male oppression (and especially from the oppression of white, middle-class men).
Initially, women's liberation was for all women, and for men as well. Broadsheet magazine, which first appeared in 1972, was always primarily by, for and about women, but, during its first few years, articles by men appeared regularly. "Don't put men down," wrote a correspondent "Ask them to join the fight."
But, as the '70s progressed, women at the cutting edge of feminism became increasingly disunited. A cornerstone of the radicalisation of the women's movement was the feminist analysis of rape. In October 1975, Broadsheet readers were told: "...rape is part of a normal pattern of male behaviour....Every male is a potential rapist." [In the US, there are an estimated 520,000 false rape allegations a year — 98.1% of all reported cases. — Eeva Sodhi, Debunking Domestic Violence Statistics; Rape]
With the demonisation of men, the distinction made by women's liberationists between "men we like" and "male chauvinist pigs" was abolished. All men were predatory bastards.
By the end of the '70s, disillusioned heterosexuals were abandoning the women's liberation movement in droves, leaving lesbian radicals (and a few heterosexual radicals) in control of the feminist high ground.
At the time, rape statistics were a major source of frustration to feminism. Despite a vigorous "believe the victim" campaign and the establishment of rape crisis centres nationwide, rape continued to constitute less than 0.5% of recorded crime in New Zealand. Also, despite all the rhetoric about white, middle-class men being the chief perpetrators, those convicted of rape were usually poor men from racial minorities. The theorists were faced with a dilemma: they could admit their extravagant claims about the prevalence of rape and the identity of the rapists were wrong, or they could redefine the problem and repackage the statistics to produce the results they had wanted. In the decade ahead, many enterprising feminists chose the latter option.
In most respects the antithesis of '70s feminism was '70s religious conservatism. Conservatives savoured a God-fearing society in which men ruled the world and women knew their place. Expressions like "family values", "community standards", "moral decline", "common decency" and "bring back the birch" sprang readily to their lips. All they appeared to have in common with radical feminists [more accurately called redfems —WHS] was an intense interest in what people did in the privacy of their own bedrooms and a tight-lipped disappointment with the Creator for making heterosexual intercourse necessary for the continuation of the species.
Patricia Bartlett, ex-nun and indefatigable anti-pornography activist, founded the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. Another conservative movement of the '70s, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child persuaded parliament to tighten the laws on legalised abortion. But, despite this success, religious conservatism ended the decade still struggling to be taken seriously in the face of ongoing criticism from civil libertarians over issues of censorship, and ridicule from the general public for its busybody prurience.
Child Protection Movement
The most spectacularly successful social force of the 1970s, the child protection movement, began early in the previous decade.
In a 1962 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Denver paediatrician Henry Kempe coined the term "the battered-child syndrome" to remind doctors that not all injuries to young children were accidental. Kempe claimed that this "recognised trauma" was "a frequent cause of permanent injury or death", and "one of the most serious concerns facing society."
By 1967, Kempe had persuaded all 50 states to pass child abuse reporting laws. The following year, two articles in scholarly journals cast doubt on his alarmist claims but failed to slow his momentum. Kempe expanded his frontiers and renamed his territory "child abuse."
In 1972, researchers for the New Zealand Department of Social Welfare investigated the problem in this country. They concluded: "...child abuse is not a problem of major social importance in New Zealand." During the survey year fewer than three children in every 10,000 in the 0-16 age group came to the attention of the child welfare division for incidents in which there was evidence of abuse. Even for the high risk (under one year old) group, the incidence was only 4.5 per 10,000 children.
The bulk of incidents involved only relatively minor injuries, and of the 255 abused children only 44 were hospitalised as a consequence of abuse. By comparison, in the same year 2401 children in the 0-14 age group were admitted to hospital from road accidents and a further 2131 from accidental poisonings in the home. This finding may have been good news for New Zealand children. But scientific reality was that child abuse was an idea whose time had come.
So there they were, approaching the end of the decade, three separate social movements: feminism, religious conservatism and the child protection movement- each seething with mutual hostility, frustrated ambitions and unrealised potential, and each about to discover an exciting new cause: child sexual abuse.
The upsurge of interest in child sexual abuse had its origins in feminist scholarship. When they re-examined the work of Sigmund Freud, feminist scholars discovered that, between 1895 and 1897 the father of modem psychoanalysis believed that sexual abuse in early childhood was the root cause of the mental disorders he observed in his adult patients.
The bracketing of women and children as victims of male sexual violence brought three great benefits to feminism. It helped silence the critics, it supplied the rape crisis movement, which was initially concerned only with contemporary rape cases, with a major new category of clients and it created a window of opportunity through which the label "rapist" could be flung at all the white middle-class men who had breezed through the '70s largely untouched by feminist anger.
During the '80s retrospective cases came to dominate the rape crisis movement. By 1993 90% of new contacts made by groups dealing with sexual assaults were related to incidents which had occurred years earlier. Compared to contemporary rape allegations, these historic allegations were more likely to involve white, middle-class victims and white middle-class perpetrators. Also, because any physical evidence would have long since disappeared, the alleged victims had to be taken at their word.
These factors gave the modest contemporary rape statistics a great boost, and, when added to previously unrecognised cases covered by the late '70s redefinition of rape (which included wolf-whistles, sexual humour, underwear advertisements and consensual sex) and when combined with extravagant estimates of the levels of unreported rape, the resulting statistics made the claim "all men are rapists" much easier to argue.
In 1979, lesbian-feminist psychologist Miriam Jackson brought the child sexual abuse issue to the New Zealand public with a questionnaire in the New Zealand Woman's Weekly headed, "Can you help? Your answers to this questionnaire will aid research into a shocking social ill - the sexual abuse of children." Of the 220,000 questionnaires distributed, only 315 were returned. This represents a response rate of 0.14%. According to Otago School of Medicine statistician Peter Herbison, community surveys using mailed questionnaire are considered invalid if the response is less than 60%.
Jackson held strong views about the prevalence and effects of sexual abuse, and it was the views that mattered. In fact, so keen was Jackson to publicise her views that she burst into print four months before the results of her questionnaire had been analysed. "IS SHE SAFE WITH HER FATHER? INCEST THE LAST TABOO" screamed the cover of November 1979 Broadsheet. The article began with one woman's harrowing account of childhood incest. Then, on the basis of that story, Jackson went on to generalise and theorise.
The father in the article, whom most readers would have regarded as a disgusting pervert, was to Jackson a normal man, engaging in normal male behaviour: "Incest is the example of the extent to which male domination in the patriarchal family can go.
While the fear of rape controls women, incest is the method of social control that works in the home."
Four months later, using figures that purported to be accurate to the second decimal place ("Nearly half - 44.77% - were victimised by relatives and nearly a quarter of the women by fathers or stepfathers"), Jackson presented her findings in the Woman's Weekly. She said her results showed that "the incidence of child molestation and rape - particularly incest - is more widespread than had been thought" and "small girls are most at risk from friends [and] family".
In a follow-up article in Broadsheet she added that "The men were nearly always white (90%) and usually married". She also endorsed the advice of a respondent concerning "the need for parents to protect their children and keep them away from adult males".
At that time, Jackson's findings had little impact on the prevailing view that fathers were, on the whole, benign figures; protectors, providers and loving dads who cuddled, bathed and toileted their children as an everyday part of family life, but her toxic message of sexual anxiety and distrust towards men was promoted vigorously throughout the '80s. By the end of the decade her agonising question ("Is she safe with her father?") and her misanthropic answer (that children should be kept away from adult males) had soaked deep into the fabric of New Zealand society:
In 1981, The Sexual Abuse of Children - authored under Jackson's new name Miriam Saphira - was published. The book's aim was "to break the silence and dispel the myths surrounding sexual abuse."
Fifteen hundred copies of Saphira's book were given to the Department of Social Welfare, and the author embarked on a lecture tour of New Zealand. Her main message was: "one out of four girls will be molested before she turns 18." As a result, within a few years Saphira's "one in four" claim became widely accepted as a reliable estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in New Zealand.
The figure did not come from Jackson's research but from selective reading of the work of Dr Alfred Kinsey, the first sex researcher to apply modern statistical methods to the questions of who does what, when, and with whom. Saphira took Kinsey's one-in-four figure for "sexual contacts" and re-defined it as "sexual abuse".
But there was no way she could use Kinsey's findings regarding the males involved to support her claim that "one in 16 girls will be molested by her father or stepfather before her 16th birthday." Kinsey found that 52% of the males were strangers, 32% friends or acquaintances, 9% uncles, 4% fathers and 3% brothers.
When Kinsey's figure for the number of women who experienced some form of pre-adolescent sexual contact with their own fathers is presented as a proportion of all the women in his sample, his results show that less than one girl in 100 had any sort of sexual contact with her own father.
Also, since over half the pre-adolescent sexual experiences in Kinsey's sample were visual or verbal, and 31% fell into the ambiguous category of "non-genital fondling", Kinsey's findings indicate that fewer than one girl in 300 experienced any sort of genital contact with her own father. Kinsey's findings also failed to support Saphira's claims that most sexual abuse victims suffered long-term damage.
Kinsey found that little physical harm was reported, but 80% of respondents said they had been upset or frightened at the time. He noted :
"A small portion had been seriously disturbed; but in most instances the reported fright was nearer the level that children will show when they see insects, spiders or objects against which they have been adversely conditioned."
In the early '80's, New Zealand initiatives in the field of child sexual abuse were driven by a loose coalition of feminists, child protectionists and anti-pornography activists of religious-conservative and feminist persuasions.
Both the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards and Women Against Pornography were subjected to the same hostility and derision from the same disrespectful sections of the community. But when the anti-pornography groups turned their attention to child pornography, the hostility and derision evaporated.
Not only was child pornography totally unacceptable to the general public, it offered sexual abuse campaigners a welcome answer to some troubling questions: why were so many men with no histories of mental illness or crime apparently molesting their own and other people's children?
How were they getting away with it? Why was there so little physical evidence when (if the flood of recovered memories was to be believed) child sexual abuse was widespread and had been going on for years?
To these questions the anti-pornographer's ultimate fantasy (an ultra-secret, international, multi-million-dollar, kid-porn conspiracy orchestrated by Satan-worshippers) provided the answer. To everyone who believed that men were black-hearted predators, and that child sexual abuse was rampant, it made perfect sense.
With witchcraft, as with child sexual abuse, perpetrators and victims were rarely obvious. To identify them, special investigative techniques had to be devised and special investigators had to be trained in their use.
To secure convictions, special laws had to be passed. In the final analysis, it was the law changes that swept away the rights of suspects to a fair trial, and the near-universal acceptance that the coerced evidence of witchcraft and child sexual abuse was reliable, that made the great witch-hunts, and the late-20th century sexual abuse panic, possible. In New Zealand in 1993, these factors also made the conviction of Peter Ellis possible.
Ellis was the only person on trial, but the nature of even the more believable charges he faced meant there was no way he could have acted alone or unnoticed. In his opening address, the prosecutor addressed this point : "It is the crown's case that Ellis took children to houses where other adults were present and engaged in sexual activity with the children." The identities of the "other adults" and the locations of their "houses" were never established, but the jury was undeterred. Among other things, they found Ellis guilty on a charge that he "took the child to an unknown address where an unknown man put his penis on her vagina."
In 1994, Graham Pankhurst QC demonstrated, through his careful analysis of the children's evidence in the Ellis case, that the alleged experts, who had over the previous decade staked their reputations on their ability to distinguish between true and false allegations of child sexual abuse, could do nothing of the sort.
But that was not a message the Court of Appeal wanted to hear. Of allegations that Peter Ellis took children to an unknown address where groups of people abused them with sticks, needles and burning paper while Ellis and his mother took photographs, the court ruled that there was nothing in the defence submissions that rendered the children's stories "inherently improbable or unworthy of belief."
Interestingly, when the Ellis case was reconsidered by the Court of Appeal in 1999, its similarities to the Salem witch-hunts were noted. But, unfortunately for Ellis, the witch-hunts had been known for 300 years, and the Court of Appeal considered only new evidence when reviewing its earlier decisions. So, to their honours, evidence that the Ellis case had the characteristics of an old fashioned witch-hunt was reason to uphold, rather than overturn, the Ellis verdict.
*An edited extract from Touchy Subject, edited by Alison Jones, Otago
University Press, to be published on April 12, $34.95.
Robert H. Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah (p. 287)
Information from ... The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence