There are some crimes which are so horrible to think about, we have not, as a society been able to deal with them well collectively. Child sexual abuse is most firmly in that category. It was only really in the 1970s that society started to acknowledge that child sexual abuse was something that happened, and even then it has been a hard slog for those who have been abused by both individuals, and after by institutional cover-up, to find the sort of justice and restitution that they seek.
However, for those who did acknowledge child sexual abuse exists there is a cohort who have gone too far in persuing what they believe is justice, typafied in the series Peter Ellis, The Crech Case and Me. The New Zeland podcast, covers the case of Peter Ellis, a young creche worker who was accused of satanic ritual abuse during the satanic panic.
The satanic panic was kick started by the now discredited book Michelle Remembers in the United States, and then was exported round the mainly western world, with false cases of abuse uncovered in Orkeny, Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand. The most well known cases in this collection is possibly that of the West Memphis Three, which has been widely written about, talked about in podcasts and made into a not very good film.
In the panic, people in a position of power, believed that there was satanic ritual abuse happening to very young children, often by a ring of adults. As a result families were seperated, and people accused of horrific crimes, which once the panic died down, were found to have no substance. It was a kind of temporary insanity by social workers, the police and other agencies of the state. It is almost as though the acknowledgement that the horror of child sexual abuse happens had sent them into a frenzie triggering the more primitive and fear motivated part of our brains and catapulting minds back to the superstition of the 1600s and the hunt for witches. There is a really important difference though. While we know that witches are not real (at least in the sense the populations of the 1600s believed them) we do know that those who abuse children are, very, very real, and far to often in the past have operated with impunity.
The Peter Ellis cases is poignantly presented by Melanie Reid, who as a journalist working in New Zealand had recorded hours of interviews with Ellis, as he went through trial, and kept in touch with him during his imprisonment, release and various appeal processes. Reid had obviously got to know Ellis very well over the years, and so can paint an intimate portrait of a man who had been wrongly accused of horrific behaviour.
The case starts with a mother of child at the crech where Ellis worked, accusing him of sexual abuse. The mother was a social worker herself and had also gone through the now scientifically discredited recovered memory process. One, which it would be fair to argue is abusive in itself. This mother pops up in the popcast early on, and then fades from view, as the twists and turns of the case become more and more labrynthine. During the podcast we hear from the lead Detective on the case, who it turns out had persued several relationships with women involved in the case over the years, and the influence his Christain faith had, at a time when homosexuality had only been legal in New Zealand for five years, was brought into question. The behaviours and assumptions of social worker’s, the police and the legal system are all questioned and come out wanting in the podcast, and we also hear from parents who were pressurised into allowing their children to give evidence.
Asides from Peter Ellis, and his ever stalwart Mum, there are other figuers of pathos in the series. There is the young girl who under questioning relvealed her uncle was abusing her, a fact her brother corroborated, but her family not wanting the child to become a multiple abuse victim decided not to press charges on the uncle who subsequently moved abroad, another case of justice denied. There is also the child, now an adult, who admits that she had lied about Ellis, having felt under pressure by the adults around her to say what she knew they wanted to hear. She lives with deep regret, and even left New Zealand in an attempt to come to terms with the part she unwittingly played, still living with the guilt from adult manipulation when she was too young to know how to stand up to it.
It’s easy to see the miscarraige of justice, but seeing the trail of destruction it has left, to the nursery, to other employee’s, to the families and the children it comes as a stark warning tale about over zealous policing at a time when cultural attitudes were less enlightened. Although I do not remain convinced that something similar could not happen again. In our episode on Through The Wall, we see that Luke Mitchell, convicted for the murder of his girlfriend Jodi Jones, was gleefully portrayed as an occultist obsessed by satan. The inaccuaret belief that gay men are also likely paedophiles who want to pervert children has not faded in some people’s minds despite great leaps that have been made in equality in some parts of the world.
There are indeed those for whom the occult is real and a belief system that they explore, however extrapolating an intention to murder, or abuse children from what can sometimes be pure curiosity about differing ways of interpreting the world, or a little youthful rebellion is a little hysterical for cultures that are supposedly post-enlightenment.
Peter Ellis shows an immense amount of grace, given the pressure he had been put under. He admits that he is angry, but refuses to be bitter, when it feels as though that would be a very natural response. He feels for the children who got caught up in the mess, and for the parents, understanding the blight that the case has also been on their lives.
Peter Ellis died before his conviction was rightly quashed by the Supream Court. However the case has still left a scar on New Zealand, which it will take time to heal. For those of us left living in post satanic-panic societies there are a number of difficult questions that we need to face. On one hand we need greater education on the signs and warnings of abuse, and understanding of the gradient on which it exists. On the other hand, as we saw in the true crime book Baby X the services which do work so hard to stop child abuse, in any form, are woefully underfunded. That a litany of neglect, emotional and physical abuse as well as sexual abuse that is happening to children, and both police and social workers are underfunded to deal with it.
The effects of the satanic panick is still being felt around the world, and in lives and communities. However it does not appear to have yet triggered the central question which these cases leave us with. Why, when so much time and energy of various institutions was devoted to satanic cases, which all ultimately proved foundless can that same energy, time and conviction be put into protecting children, and educating and supporting their parents where appropriate? Could it possibly be that it feels more comfortable to us to assume that when the worst does happen it is controlled and planned, by people who can be identified and locked away quickly, than to acknowledge how complex and difficult it can be to deal with neglect and abuse when the services that do this work are so underfunded and poorly resourced? When abuse is cyclical, and that it is impossible to divorce neglect from structural inequalities, nore our fears from our ignorance and unconcious biases.