George Gwaze was first cleared of the murder of his adopted daughter Charlene Makaza on 21 May 2008. At the time I wrote in NZ Skeptic 88‘s Newsfront that it had taken since the first week of 2007 for him to be acquitted of a non-existent crime: Charlene had died from a massive Aids:related infection. Little did I realise the Crown would retry the case – the only time a Not Guilty verdict has been overturned in a New Zealand court – and Gwaze would have to face another four years to clear his name.
It may seem a strange case to attract the interest of the NZ Skeptics, apart from the fact that one of our members, Dr Felicity Goodyear-Smith, acted as a medical adviser for the defence in the first trial, but it could be seen as a late manifestation of the sexual abuse panic which swept the western world in the 1980s and 1990s. This had its origins in a book titled Michelle Remembers, which recounted memories of satanic ritual abuse recovered under hypnosis from a young woman, Michelle Smith, by her therapist (later husband) Lawrence Pazder. Though skeptics at the time were quick to note that these ‘recovered memories’ had similarities with those reported by Budd Hopkins, who used hypnosis to uncover ‘memories’ of alien abduction, or various proponents of reincarnation who used similar techniques, there was a rash of satanic ritual abuse cases arising out of hypnotherapy sessions over the next few years.
In time, the satanic element faded, but the panic only became the more destructive because of that, with many people ‘recovering’ memories of more mundane forms of sexual abuse, often by their parents. Families were torn apart; the damage continues to this day. In a parallel development, testimony of sexual abuse (often ritual in nature) was elicited from pre-school children at day-care centres and kindergartens by suspect interviewing techniques.
In most of the world the day-care sexual abuse panic has been recognised for what it was, and those who fell victim to it have mostly received large compensation packages. Not so in New Zealand, where Peter Ellis is still on record as a convicted child abuser, after spending seven years in prison for alleged offences at the Civic Creche in Christchurch – the same city where the Gwaze family lives. Sexual abuse of children is a terrible crime and, perhaps understandably, when the prospect is raised rationality tends to fly out the window; other scenarios often don’t get a look in. The George Gwaze case – and the ongoing injustice suffered by Peter Ellis – shows that even (or perhaps especially) on this most emotional of issues, it’s necessary to keep a cool head, and to consider all possibilities.