Review of "A City Possessed: the Christchurch Civic Creche Case"

from Class Struggle 49 March/April 2003

By Lynley Hood, Longacre Publishers

“Blind Justice” was a series from the BBC which was screened here about ten years ago.It centered around the cases taken by a fictional Left wing team of lawyers.In the first episode actor Jack Shephard (who plays one of the main characters in the story) tells another lawyer what his philosophy is:“The law is a bulldozer, driven by vested interest.We can pull a few people clear but we can’t make it make sense.” But this is because each class in society views the justice system from its own point of view.

Right wing politicians never pass up an opportunity to whip up the public by calling for tougher sentences and complaining about people let out on parole.Victims feel let down by the system and by being on a conveyer belt which they have little or no control over.Several years ago when I approached a lawyer to ask for help with an immigrant friend accused of rape I was told such people are “grist for the mill.” On the other side, criminal lawyers spoken to, talk of the “intellectual dishonesty” of the courts when making decisions and accuse them of being too keen to believe the police and waive the rights of the accused.

For Marxists ‘making sense’ of the Capitalist Justice System comes down to the way the state regulates the lives of the working class.Workers need to be maintained in their bourgeois families according to social and moral rules that ensure that they are fit for work.Workers who steal, threaten violence, or break moral norms or sexual standards are punished and paraded before the public. When extreme transgression of moral standards occurs, public reactions are also extreme. Because of fears that such criminal excesses could overrun decent society, individuals suppress their own desire to ‘break the rules’ by joining in the ritual punishment of the transgressors.The outburst of public emotion that surrounds and amplifies such rule-breaking is called a ‘moral panic’.

Bourgeois media coverage of the justice system serves this purpose. It is selective and sensational, homing in on high-profile cases likely to rouse the emotions of a sexually obsessed public.Therefore, anything to do with sex and particularly, sexual abuse allegations is likely to get a lot of attention.The coverage of the Christchurch Civic Creche case was understandably reasonably saturated, by media standards.

So where has the ‘left’ stood on such issues and on this case in particular?The answer is all over the show.Many on the left (particularly those who would define themselves as feminists) believe that sexual abuse is an epidemic in our society.They therefore tended to believe that Peter Ellis was as guilty as sin.The women at the Christchurch Civic Creche presented more of a problem, since many on the left refuse to believe that women are capable of sexual abuse.But the problem is that it is difficult to see how the scale of abuse that Peter Ellis is said to have indulged in could have occurred without the knowledge of the women at the crèche.

The criticism leveled at people on the left if they challenge the above view is that they are not taking the issue of child abuse seriously.This response seems to be reminiscent of the attitude taken to people in the United States in the 1950s who dared to challenge the McCarthyism Witch hunts.They were accused of being communists themselves. It is ironic that today some so-called leftists are using the same tactics that were used against communists by anti-leftists in the 50s.

It’s a reasonable perception that the general public is fairly evenly divided on whether sexual abuse is as widespread as some say it is.They also seem to be fairly evenly divided on whether the events that were supposed to take place at the Christchurch Civic Crèche took place.

In such cases the media acts as a “gatekeeper” deciding what the public should know.The courts add their own gate keeping to this process and further limit what is known, particularly during the course of a trial. Ostensibly, this is done so that the defendant gets a fair trial and that alleged victims are not identified.Whatever the reasons, the end result is that the public and even the jury in a trial are often not aware of all the facts.Sometimes these facts emerge after the trial as was the case in the Civic Crèche trial.

Yet even when facts are released after the event, the media gatekeepers are still in a strong position to regulate what we know.Only a dedicated person, willing to research all the facts can truly give us a fully rounded picture of what a trial was all about.There is a social context for any case.What was happening to NZ society in the 1980’s that created a climate for moral panics and hysteria about sex cases? While the media and the trial lawyers focus on the so-called facts of the case it is important to understand the broader canvas on which the case is painted.

Lynley Hood’s book seeks to lay before us all the facts she feels relevant and to put before us the context in which the Christchurch case occurred.The result is a kind of snapshot of society and gives us a better understanding of the way the justice system operates.

It is notable that it takes over 160 pages before we even get into the events leading up to the original trial.In the first part of the book Lynley Hood talks of the evolution of the counseling and child protection methods which were used and also other non-related panics relating to child molestation and child pornography which occurred in Christchurch prior to the case. The overall impression Lynley Hood gives us in these first 160 pages is that it was not a case of if such an event as the Christchurch crèche case was to going to occur, more when it would happen.

In the decade before the Civic case we had seen a shift from media-stoked moral panics about gangs, and racism, to moral panics focusing on violent crime and the sexual abuse of children. In all cases the fears underlying these panics bear little relation to reality, and as they become more centred on children they become more and more detached from reality.

This is demonstrated by the extreme concept of Satanic and Ritual Abuse, no incidences of which have ever been proven to exist. Hood mentions the fact that prior to the Christchurch Civic case being investigated there had been an expose on “60 Minutes” of allegations about a pedophile-sex ring involving child pornography.The investigation by the police showed the whole thing was a load of nonsense but that didn’t stop it taking on a life of its own.

Our newspapers and TV news often feature stories of alleged pedophile activities and it seems that many television cop/investigation shows include plots involving pedophilia.In the week that I wrote this review there were at least three dramas on television involving pedophilia, child abduction by pedophiles and child pornography rings.It is the new TV obsession because of the current moral panic surrounding it.

What is interesting in this panic is the way that some people continue to believe that sex rings and ritual abuse exist, even when there is little or no evidence of them.It is hypothesized by the believers that there is some sort of vast conspiracy, reaching up to the highest levels, which is protecting the abusers.Like all conspiracy theories, people who believe this cannot be dissuaded by something as mundane as the facts, preferring instead to say that the reason no one is ever caught for ritual abuse is there is a cover up.They fall into the same category as believers in alien abductions and the members of the Flat Earth Society.

What happened at the Christchurch Civic Crèche seems to be symptomatic of the “culture of fear” that has intensified during the neo-liberal years of the 1980’s and 1990’s.As society was destabilised and more and more people marginalised, fears of social disorder grew rapidly and were projected onto certain social groups.

Writers such as Barry Glasner and Frank Furedi have written about how the media has hyped up certain issues and exaggerated their occurrence out of all proportion.An example of this is that although the number of child abductions by strangers has remained largely static for the last 20 years, there is a perception (bought about by media sensationalism of a few cases) that child stranger abductions are more common now.The results of such perceptions are wide ranging.

It is clear from early on in “A City Possessed” that Lynley Hood believes there were fatal flaws in the Christchurch Civic Creche case.She does not attempt a “balanced” approach, putting both sides of the argument, weighing up the pros and cons.Instead she clearly has a conviction that Peter Ellis and the women charged (who were acquitted) were innocent victims of a climate of fear and shonky interviewing techniques used on the children.

This is not a flaw, unless you start reading the book expecting a so-called balanced approach (whatever that means).If you read the inside jacket, you might expect something more middle of the road, but if you read the comments on the back you will not be under any illusion about the thrust of the book.

Lynley Hood also draws parallels early in the book with the sort of witch hunts that occurred in the USA in the 17th century and the anti-communist witch hunt of the 50s and compares them to the pedophile witch hunts being carried out in our time.

A factor that emerges as a key ingredient in the Christchurch Creche case is the use of extremely questionable interviewing techniques.Over the past twenty years the number of people offering counseling in New Zealand (and other countries) has increased dramatically.Unfortunately, the standard has gone through the floorboards.It seems under our free market ideology that anyone can set himself or herself up as a counselor with no or little training.

Twenty years ago counselors were psychiatrists and psychologists and they had university qualifications and were members of professional organisations and subject to some form or registration.Now there is little way of knowing the qualifications (and value of the qualifications) of counselors.

There has also been a move away from a scientific approach to counseling towards acceptance of totally improvable concepts such as “recovered memory syndrome.”Counselors have developedseemingly magical powers by which they are able to recover memories of what happened to a person when they were four or five.We all know that our memory can be unreliable and we also know that we have little recollection of what happened when we were four or five.

Thus, whatever is ‘recovered’ by these counselors is extremely subjective and short of a confession from the perpetrator of abuse cannot be proven to have a foundation in fact.

Most of these counselors are little more than modern day shamans.They are spell-casters, waving their magic wand and conjuring up demons from the past.This wouldn’t matter so much if their spell- casting wasn’t taken so seriously be the police, media and judiciary.The consequences of their actions are often the imprisonment of people, some of whom I am sure are innocent.

This is not to deny that sexual abuse does take place.It irks me that I have to write this, but I do so because the criticism leveled at people who dare to challenge what is happening in our society is that they don’t take sexual abuse seriously or don’t believe it exists at all.Lynley Hood makes this point in her book.

There are many other points and issues that Lynley Hood raises in the book that deserve attention from our society.In addition to attacking the method of child questioning used in the case, she gives ample evidence that the children were coached by their parents and the interviewers.

She also rightly attacks the current rationale that children never lie about sexual abuse (unless they deny it happened).The book offers an interesting insight into the tactics of the police who behave as little more than licensed thugs (Chapter 9) and lays open the myth of the supposedly objective justice system (in particular Chapter 12).

From a Marxist point of view, the book fails to correctly analyze why the outcome was as it was.While Lynley Hood correctly gives us an overview of the climate leading up to the case she fails to realise that it was unlikely that any other outcome was going to occur for Peter Ellis once the ‘moral panic’ got rolling.There is a clear suggestion that had another policeman done the investigation the outcome may have differed. A similar, though understandably more guarded approach (given the laws for contempt) is taken by Hood to the Judge’s handling of the case.

As Marxists we are under no such illusions. It is possible that the outcome might have been different, but given the accumulation of circumstances that shaped the way the case was dealt with, it is unlikely.To return to the original quote about the justice system, you can’t “make it make sense.”Unless, that is, you adopt a Marxist perspective. The courts and police are not objective observers - they are instruments of state oppression and operate in the interests of the ruling class to protect their property and regulate the lives of the working class.

This criticism does not detract from what is, however, a very good book that seems at times more like a sociological study of an aspect of our society than a recounting of the events.Hood’s book is a valuable contribution and statement of where capitalist society is going at this point in time.Reading it makes one wonder if we have progressed all that much since the time of the Salem witch hunts.

Putting the issue of alleged sexual abuse aside, it is clear that satanic and ritual abuse is nonsense and nothing more than a modern day equivalent of religious mumbo jumbo.The fact these views are held by educated people does not give them any greater credibility.What it does show is the level to which moral panic has risen in our society and the importance of identifying the real class enemy and pointing out how superstitious beliefs are being used to deflect anger away from the real targets at which it should be aimed.

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