Story: Child abuse

Page 2. High-profile child-abuse cases

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Child abuse remains in the public eye through high-profile and tragic cases.

Baby C

One of the first highly publicised child abuse cases occurred in 1987. ‘Baby C’, a two-year-old South Auckland girl, died as a result of injuries inflicted by her mother, who had been a state ward. Mother and child had been periodically monitored and visited by various health and welfare professionals from the time that Baby C was first abused, at around four months old.

A review of the case revealed many problems in the way various agencies responded to the signs of repeated or suspected abuse. The case, and the review, had a major impact on how government social workers would respond to abuse in the future.

Early case

In the early 1900s there were allegations of abuse of children under the care of the Roman Catholic Church. A Royal Commission into the management of St Mary’s Orphanage in Stoke revealed physical abuse and the use of dark cells to confine children. Separate police inquiries uncovered systematic sexual abuse of boys by one of the Marist Brothers. The case was covered by newspapers throughout the country. The Brothers retreated from the orphanage in 1912 after further cases of sexual abuse.

Christchurch Civic Crèche

From the late 1980s the alleged sexual abuse of children came to public attention. The most prominent instance concerned the Christchurch Civic Crèche. It was New Zealand’s biggest child-abuse case.

Complaints about the alleged abuse of children at the crèche began in 1991. More than 100 children were interviewed by sexual abuse specialists during the resulting investigation. Five crèche staff were arrested during 1992, but only one – the sole male, Peter Ellis – stood trial. He was convicted of sexual violation, indecent assault, and performing (or inducing to perform) indecent acts on seven children in his care.

Some of the more extreme claims had been dropped by the time of the trial, such as those involving satanic rituals or cannibalism, but the case polarised New Zealanders. Controversy raged while Ellis served his prison term, and after his release in 2000.

Some people were convinced of Ellis’s guilt, but for others the case raised questions about how allegations of sexual abuse were handled. There was talk of a ‘sexual abuse industry’ that relied too much on children’s evidence, and people came forward with stories of families torn apart by false accusations. In 2022, the Supreme Court quashed Ellis’s convictions posthumously, ruling that a ‘substantial miscarriage of justice’ had occurred.

Child homicides

Between 1991 and 2000 there were 91 child homicides, all but two of which involved excessive physical abuse. These cases, and others in the early 2000s, put New Zealand among the worst performing nations for child mortality due to mistreatment.

Some cases made household names of murdered children: Delcelia Witika, sexually abused and beaten to death by her caregiver in 1991; Craig Manukau, killed in 1992; Riri-O-Te-Rangi (James) Whakaruru, murdered in 1999; Saliel and Olympia Aplin, stabbed to death in 2001; twin babies Chris and Cru Kahui, who died in 2006 after suffering massive brain damage; Nia Glassie, who suffered ongoing abuse before her death in 2007.

Regulating pornography

In general, pornography is not illegal in New Zealand, though it is subject to the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 and images and film can be banned or restricted. An exception to this is pornography involving children and young people. All such images are automatically deemed objectionable under the act and any person found distributing or possessing them is committing a crime. The Censorship Compliance Unit at the Department of Internal Affairs enforces the legislation and is the first port of call for complaints.

These cases usually spark much debate about how abuse is dealt with by government and other agencies. That debate can be a search for a scapegoat to blame, as people try to understand how such abuse occurred, or continued if families were known to welfare groups, as several of these were.

Child pornography

The rise of the worldwide web from the 1990s revealed a new and disturbing angle to child abuse. The internet offered a huge market for images of sexually abused children – ‘kiddie porn’ – in New Zealand and internationally. Traders and collectors of such images have been targeted in multi-national raids, but the children subject to the abuse in the first place generally go untraced.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse - High-profile child-abuse cases', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2023)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 11 Apr 2018