'He got a jail term and I got a life sentence': Peter Ellis abuse survivor breaks 30-year silence

Now in her 30s, one young woman wants to share her story of nearly three decades of living with...
Now in her 30s, one young woman wants to share her story of nearly three decades of living with the trauma of being sexually abused by Peter Ellis. Photo: Getty Images
A young woman tells Jo Malcolm her story of three decades of living with the trauma of being sexually abused by Peter Ellis, and dealing with public debate and disbelief around what the children disclosed.

In June 1993 Christchurch Civic Creche worker Peter Ellis was convicted of 16 charges of sexually abusing seven children in his care.

Peter Ellis. Photo: Supplied
Peter Ellis. Photo: Supplied
The case rocked the garden city. It was a huge story. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Over the years there have been two appeals against the convictions, a ministerial inquiry and ongoing debate about the children's disclosures. One child recanted their evidence in the first appeal in 1994, reducing the guilty verdicts to 13 charges relating to six children. The second appeal was dismissed in 1999.

Peter Ellis died of cancer in 2019. Last October, his case was appealed to the Supreme Court - the first time in New Zealand that a conviction was appealed by a dead person.
The ruling is yet to be released.

For the victims, now in their 30s, and their families, it was deeply re-traumatising. Videos of their original disclosures and interviews as small children were part of the evidence at the hearing.

The victims have lifelong name suppression and guard their identities carefully. Over the years, some have moved house and changed their names to stay hidden.

I was asked by a Ministry of Justice Court Victims Advisor who has supported the group over the years, to help them deal with media inquiries after the Supreme Court hearing.

Most didn't want to speak out, too scared of any kind of backlash. It's still raw and painful for many of them. But one young woman did want to tell her story, to describe what it's been like dealing with the deep trauma of what happened to her.

She attended the Civic Creche from age 18 months to 5 years. After disclosing that she'd been sexually abused by Ellis, charges were laid - one charge that he sexually violated her and one that he indecently assaulted her. He was convicted on both charges.

She's suffered years of mental and physical trauma consistent with sexual abuse. But from when she was little, she bottled it all up.

But something happened with last year's Supreme Court hearing. She's had enough of being silent.

The stoic little girl who went to court and told the truth all those years ago is now in her mid-30s and she wants a voice.

A voice telling people her truth, which she carries deep in her bones. A voice describing what it's been like living with this nightmare that never seems to stop.

I know this is really hard for you to talk about but let's start at the beginning. What memories do you have of going to the creche?

A lot of them. I have a few distinct memories, a lot of them are just fragments or snapshots. I remember the inside of the building quite well and the layout and things like the colour of the carpet and the furniture. They had two separate rooms - one was for the younger children, they called them the Wombles, and the other was for the big kids and there was a sort of interconnecting area with some cubby holes. There was a sandpit outside and they had a big staircase and a wooden fort in one corner.

I remember we used to sit in a big circle to eat lunch and I remember Peter would walk around behind us picking what he liked out of people's lunch boxes. I remember he had a particular fondness for gherkins.

We used to do quite a bit of face painting and I remember when Peter did the face painting he'd make me get undressed on my bottom half. I remember him drawing a blue or purple butterfly on my bottom and then I wasn't allowed to put my clothes back on to join the other kids outside in the sandpit, I had to stay half undressed. I wasn't particularly keen on that but didn't really feel like I had any power to say no. I was just doing what I was told.

What sort of little girl were you?

I was quite shy, very shy and quiet like a little mouse and would make myself small to be unobtrusive, not to attract attention.

Can you remember wanting to go to creche, being happy to go?

There were a lot of times when I didn't and I have one strong memory. I kicked up such a fuss at home that my Mum was running late for work and she took me to creche in my pyjamas. I can remember just screaming and crying and holding on to her jersey as tight as I could and trying to let her know not to leave me and this was not a safe place and don't leave, but not being able to communicate that in a way that she would understand.

I remember a sense of betrayal and being alone in the world for the first time, as here was someone who was my rock, my anchor, and I couldn't make her understand. She left me there and that feeling of aloneness has been quite pervasive through most of my life.

So when did your mum ask about whether anything bad was happening at the creche – tell me about that.

I remember sitting on the couch at home and I remember the furniture and the colour and what room we were in. She said there are some children who aren't very happy with what's happening at the creche and I remember just freezing. They talk about that icy grip and I just remember my heart racing. I made myself as small as I possibly could and tried to hide, and apparently I said in a high-pitched voice, "You mean Peter?". I can only imagine how her heart must have sunk when I said that as no parent ever wishes that to be true.

That's an awful lot for a little girl to deal with, but that was just the beginning.

That was just the beginning. I remember going and giving evidential interviews. I remember disclosing things to my mother and I remember going to court and giving evidence by video link. There was this funny orange carpet. I remember I had to sit in a chair between two lines of tape on the ground and I had to stay within the lines otherwise the camera wouldn't see me. I remember talking to the judge and answering questions and yeah, I wasn't allowed anyone else in the room with me so it was just me on my own.

You've never looked back on those video interviews. You told me before you didn't want to?

No, no. For a long time I had my head in the sand and tried to forget that anything had ever happened. With this latest hearing, and learning just how widely spread those videos have been distributed, I have toyed with the idea of watching it just so I would know what other people had seen, but I'm so scared of the strength of emotion that it would bring up that I can't bring myself to watch them.

When you think back on that little girl and what she went through, what do you think?

I'm so proud of her for being so brave and I just want to pick her up and give her a hug and whisk her away and make everything all better. She was such a stoic little girl and I think that's led to some quite unhelpful coping strategies in terms of defensive strategies now and me "armouring" up. But I just want to pick her up and give her a big hug.

There's been a lot of debate in the media about children making things up, and being led by parents. That must be really really hard for you.

Not being believed is very difficult and I lean on the fact the courts have believed me and I get some reassurance from that. Certainly the claim about being led by parents, that's not my experience of things. I had some very good incentives not to disclose.

I was told that my parents would be killed if I told anyone. They would either be turned into paper and put on a bonfire, or taken to the dump or turned into gherkins and eaten. And I guess even then a sense of shame, a sense that somehow this was dirty and taboo to talk about it. Disclosing was a scary and vulnerable thing that I did somewhat reluctantly. It's certainly not my experience that I was led by my parents, we never ever discussed it and it certainly wasn't discussed with each other as children as has been claimed. It was like an unwritten agreement - we didn't talk about it.

Growing up as a teenager you carried a huge burden that you locked up?

I completely locked it up. I tried to pretend it never happened, tried to ignore it, squash it down as far as I could. I think from the outside looking in things looked pretty normal. I was getting good grades at school and was into sport, and I had a group of friends that I got on with. I think because I didn't talk about it there was no way of knowing the degree of internal distress.

This has had a huge impact on your life, but it's not just you. Your mum must have suffered through this. Can you talk about the impact on your family?

Look we didn't really talk about this when we were growing up. It was something that we had been conditioned not to, and I had the belief that it was so shameful and taboo that I didn't talk about it even with parents and close family members. I think my parents were waiting for me to kind of bring it up and be guided by me. Of course I never talked about it, so I'm only just coming to now fully realise the full impact that it's had on them.

My mum was younger than I am now when this happened and I can only imagine what that must have been like for her, having these suspicions and having them confirmed when I disclosed. I can just imagine how her heart must have sunk and I can only imagine the guilt that must come with not being able to protect your child, knowing something was wrong but not knowing enough to be able to act on that and do something about that.

There's been a lot of talk about mothers throughout this case and we've kind of neglected the fathers too. I know it affected my father's ability to be emotionally responsive to my needs as I was growing up and we've only recently been able to talk about that with each other.

Even my adult relationships, like with my husband, it's really affected our marriage, both of us having to navigate this unknown territory of what a relationship looks like when one of us has suffered trauma. There will be times when he goes to give me a hug and I don't want to be touched at all. Sometimes I don't know why I have these reactions, so there has been a lot of learning about trauma and triggers and retraining the brain I guess, and that's been quite challenging for both of us. I really appreciate his love and support and I am so lucky he has stuck by me through all of this.

People might wonder why, after all these years, why talk about it now?

I guess for so long it was shameful and so taboo. Also in terms of media, it felt like an unsafe environment to speak out, which is why I've gone to great lengths to protect my identity. I guess for me I was really hoping that once Peter died this would all be over and I would be allowed to move on with my life. That hasn't happened so I've had to do some reflection and reframe how I look at things and I've come to realise I can't rely on external sources such as the court system or the media for closure, so I have to look within myself and think about what I can do to create some closure and take back a voice.

I felt like I've been voiceless for so long, and the latest court process feels de-humanising. It feels like they've used this particular case as an academic exercise in Tikanga Māori, so for me speaking out now and doing this is a part of reclaiming my voice and empowering myself.

So it sounds like you've managed to try to detach yourself from any outcome of the hearing?

I've intentionally been trying really hard to detach myself from any outcome. That's not something that I have any control over and it doesn't change what happened to me and it doesn't change my truth. Yes, obviously there will be an outcome that I would prefer over another and I'd be very disappointed if things didn't go how I'd like them. However, like I say, it doesn't change my truth and I am very strong in my own mind about my story and what happened to me.

Do you think, when you think back on him, do you think he is a monster?

For a long, long time I thought he was a monster. I thought that his continued protests of innocence were him trying to play mind games, being cruel and just trying to prolong this punishment. It felt like he got a jail term and I got a life sentence.

So it's helpful to me to try and reframe it from him being a monster to him being a damaged individual with a really unhealthy mindset in that he really believed that what he was doing was okay. I feel like his continued protests of innocence were not so much him denying what he did, but him genuinely believing that what he did was okay.

In terms of this case, it's so unique. Why do you think it turned into what it turned into, you know the books, the debate through Christchurch. What's your view on that?

I guess it was the time, we didn't know a lot about sexual abuse back then. I think that the culture at the time allowed an element of disbelief and then that's been perpetuated by some in the media, which led to unbalanced reporting, which then leads to an unsafe environment for both sides. So that's where we've ended up, with a really one-sided narrative and that hasn't been able to be balanced for a number of reasons. One, court processes and protection of identity, but also fear of media persecution, and I know that's a strong word but that's what it felt like, and then it snowballed from there and the seeds of doubt were sown.

And a lot of doubt around fantastical thinking. But you've got to remember, these children were 2, 3, and 4 at the time and they were using the language skills and cognition that they had at the time to try to explain what was happening to them, which was totally outside their realm of understanding, and that does lead to some fantastical explanations as to what was happening to them.

If you were going to leave people with one thing what would that be?

Absolutely believe the families and the children, it's absolutely safe to believe us. We are ordinary people just like them or their neighbours. None of us asked for this to happen. We would all like it to go away so we can get on with our lives. I'm not speaking out to try and convince anyone of innocence or guilt. I'm speaking out for my own reasons; to put a voice to my story and my truth and people can either take that or leave it.

Sexual harm - Where to get help

If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact Safe to Talk confidentially, any time 24/7:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email support@safetotalk.nz
• For more info or to web chat visit safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station - click here for a list.
If you have been sexually assaulted, remember it's not your fault.

• The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am.

• You can follow the podcast at nzherald.co.nziHeartRadioApple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

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