Kōrero: Child abuse

Whārangi 2. High-profile cases

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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

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.

Baby C

One of the first highly publicised child abuse cases in recent times 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 monitored and visited by health and welfare professionals from the time Baby C was first abused, at around four months old.

A review revealed many problems in how agencies had responded to signs of abuse. This had a major impact on how government social workers would respond to abuse in the future, encouraging a focus on safeguarding the child as the first priority.

Christchurch Civic Crèche

The alleged sexual abuse of children came to public attention from the late 1980s. The most prominent instance concerned the Christchurch Civic Crèche. Complaints alleging abuse of children at the crèche began in 1991. More than 100 children were interviewed during the resulting investigation. Five crèche staff were arrested in 1992, but only Peter Ellis stood trial. He was convicted of sexual violation, indecent assault, and performing (or inducing to perform) indecent acts on seven children.

Some of the more extreme charges had been dropped by the time of the trial, but the case polarised New Zealanders. Controversy raged while Ellis served his prison term, and continued 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.

Lake Alice Hospital

One of the special investigations carried out by the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, which began in 2018, looked into the abuse and neglect of children in the Child and Adolescent Unit at Lake Alice Hospital, near Marton in Rangitīkei. The commission found that many of the 400–450 young people who went through the unit between 1972 and 1980 had been subject to abuse. It also found that the conduct of the unit’s consultant psychiatrist, Dr Selwyn Leeks, was ‘abusive and unjustified by any standards, even those of the day. For many, Lake Alice was a place of misery, neglect, terror and torment’.1

Dilworth School and Marylands School

Survivors of abuse at many state and church-run schools have come forward to tell their stories, at the royal commission and elsewhere. 

More than 100 survivors of abuse told of the ‘hell on earth’ they experienced at Marylands School in Christchurch, a residential special school for disabled boys, and an associated youth ministry, run by a Catholic order, the Brothers of St John of God, from the 1950s until the 1990s. Many of the boys were subjected to shocking levels of sexual and physical abuse by the brothers. Survivors suffered lifelong damage. The Catholic Church ignored numerous survivors who came forward to make accusations of wrongdoing. After allegations were made, some of the perpetrators were moved to similar schools in Australia, where they continued to offend. Eventually a number of brothers were imprisoned in both countries.

An independent inquiry into sexual and physical abuse at Dilworth School in Auckland reported in 2023. Dilworth School was set up to provide a private education for boys from families in difficult circumstances. The inquiry, headed by former Governor-General Silvia Cartwright, found that teachers and fellow students had abused and bullied students at the school across five decades. There were more than 200 suspected victims, and at least 11 teachers were imprisoned.

Intentional and religious communities

Some intentional communities (often known as communes) and religious communities have allowed abusive adults access to children. One of the most notorious of these was the Auckland commune Centrepoint, set up by the charismatic Bert Potter. Numerous children lived at the commune with their parents from the late 1970s. Allegations that they were subject to abuse and sexualisation from a very young age first surfaced in the early 1980s, but the commune continued until the late 1990s. Potter and others were eventually convicted of multiple crimes.

Men living in the reclusive religious sect of Gloriavale based on the West Coast of the South Island have been convicted of sexual and physical assault. They include founder Neville Cooper (also known as Hopeful Christian), and teachers at its school. The Employment Court found that Gloriavale children had been forced to undertake ‘strenuous, difficult, and sometimes dangerous’ work in the kitchens and in the community’s commercial operations when they were legally required to be at school, and that parents had very little say in the upbringing of their children.2

Child homicides

In the three decades from 1988 to 2018 there were more than 230 child homicides caused by excessive physical abuse towards children under 15. Other deaths were caused by neglect. New Zealand ranked among the worst-performing nations for child mortality due to maltreatment. Almost all these children were under five years of age. Some cases made them household names.

Child pornography and grooming

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.  Pornography involving children and young people is an exception. All such images are automatically deemed objectionable under the act, and any person found distributing or possessing them is committing a crime. The Department of Internal Affairs enforces the legislation and receives complaints.

In the digital age, censorship has become increasingly challenging. Legislation was introduced in 2005 to attempt to control the spread of objectionable digital material. Possession of such material, not just its distribution, was made an offence, and penalties were significantly increased.

The internet offered a huge market for images of sexually abused children. Traders and collectors of such images have been targeted in multinational raids, but the children subjected to the abuse generally go untraced. Internal Affairs investigators  scan online platforms for such material, and work with New Zealand and overseas police. 

The internet has also provided potential abusers with a new way to contact children and initiate a process of feigning intimacy (‘grooming’). Some young people have had intimate photographs and videos of them shared online without their consent, often by trusted adults. Under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015, people who share such images without consent incur significant penalties.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. New Zealand. Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions. Beautiful children : inquiry into the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit = te uiui o Te Manga Tamariki Mete Rangatahi ki Lake Alice. [Wellington]: Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, 2022, p.23. Back
  2. Courage v. The Attorney General, New Zealand Employment Court, 2022. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse - High-profile cases', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/child-abuse/page-2 (accessed 24 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Bronwyn Dalley, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 7 Jan 2024