The circumstances of the original investigation, prosecution and conviction which began in November 1991, were as follows:
The openly homosexual Peter Ellis had worked in the Christchurch Civic Crèche for 5 years and was said to be well liked by parents and children. The crèche where the abuses allegedly took place was situated in the Cranmer Centre in central Christchurch and was owned and operated by the City Council. The crèche appeared to be well run by apparently caring staff.
The controversy began when a mother, who was a sexual abuse counsellor and whose son attended the crèche, phoned the supervisor, Gaye Davidson, and accused Ellis of sexual abuse, saying her son had mentioned Ellis's penis.
Ellis was put on leave subject to an internal investigation. The child himself denied he had been abused and no charges were laid in respect of him.
The mother also complained to Detective Colin Eade and an investigation began. Due to keen media attention on Ellis's suspension, a meeting was called for all crèche children’s parents to seek to reassure them. Sue Sidney, a Social Welfare psychologist, gave the parents a list of sexual abuse signs to look for including bedwetting, nightmares and tantrums. They were told not to directly question the children themselves. The mother who originally complained was upset throughout the meeting, still alleging sexual abuse. Parents who were concerned their children might have been victims, started sending them to Sue Sidney to be interviewed on videotape.
Ellis remained suspended through 1991 and into 1992. The original complainant mother approached more creche parents and warned them with details of what was allegedly going on. She placed her child in another facility where, soon afterwards, she alleged abuse by another male daycare worker. These allegations were found to be groundless.
On 30 January 1992, another mother who had organised the parents’ meeting, went to Social Welfare alleging Ellis had abused her daughter who did not attend the crèche, but had been allegedly interfered with in a five minute time-span as the woman was picking up her son. Social Welfare and police believed they had a serious case of multiple child abuse based on Sue Sidney’s opinion that children she had interviewed had been sexually molested.
At about the same time, the McMartin case in the United Sates was receiving wide attention and Ellis’s supporters saw a parallel in what was happening to him. In the McMartin case, a whole family was convicted of sexually abusing children in their family-run childcare facility. Those accused included a 70 year old grandmother, her 56 year old daughter, her 23 year old niece and 25 year old grandson. They were convicted but the convictions were overturned on the basis that the allegations were probably the result of mass hysteria. The case began with a mother accusing the grandson at the crèche of sexually abusing her son. This accusation was later found to be false. In fact, the alleged victim’s own father had been interfering with him.
On 31 March 1992, police and Social Welfare called a meeting of all past and present Civic Crèche parents. Ellis had been arrested the day before and charged with indecently assaulting the girl who had gone to the crèche with her mother, to pick up her brother. This charge was later dropped.
At the meeting, parents were given pamphlets on child abuse, phone numbers to arrange videotaped interviews and were offered counselling and ACC compensation claim forms.
(Up to $10,000 can be awarded in sexual abuse cases and the Accident Compensation Commission paid $300,000 to crèche parents before the trial).
Ellis denied each allegation as it arose. The crèche continued to run but slowly parents began withdrawing their children. There were claims of sodomy, oral sex, penetration with fingers and sticks, rape, drinking urine, locking children in cages and suspending them in the roof and finally an alleged murder-sacrifice of a young boy known as Andrew. These incidents were said to have taken place in tunnels, rooftops, private houses, the Park Royal Hotel and cemeteries