When child survivors of the sexual abuse at Centrepoint called for an apology from the commune’s adults, what happened? It’s complicated.

Published: June 15, 2022
The Commune is a 12-part Stuff podcast produced and edited by Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham. GET THE PODCAST

The Commune contains discussion of themes that some people may find distressing. Click here for a list of support services and helplines.

I letter img n the aftermath of Centrepoint, when the community which had been set up to find a better, more loving way of living finally imploded, there was anger.

Children who had been victims of sexual abuse there were angry. 

A group called the Old Believers, who had fought hard for the commune’s survival, before walking away with large cash settlements, was angry. 

Those who thought the Old Believers shouldn’t have got a cent were angry.

That was all more than 20 years ago.

And yet there’s still plenty of emotion, as we found while researching for The Commune, Stuff’s new 12-part documentary podcast series about Centrepoint.

Commune community
Generation Ex: The experience of ex-children of Centrepoint is varied, with some saying they thrived while others are left wanting an apology. Auckland Star Photo Archive 

Centrepoint was established as a spiritual community on the outskirts of Auckland in 1978. It was a place where families, couples and individuals came together, engaged in group therapy and embraced a liberal attitude to sex.

By 2000, it was done, finally ending when the trust which supported it was restructured – itself an aftershock from the arrest of its spiritual leader Bert Potter and others for sexual offences against children and running a drug network. 

For a surprisingly large number of people, Centrepoint still evokes happy memories – of friendships and personal growth, and of what might have been before it all came crashing down.

But for many, there is still anger, and frustration. 

They want an apology.

The Commune: A 12-part documentary podcast about the Centrepoint commune GET THE PODCAST


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D letter img uring its 22 years, thousands of people crossed the bridge which led up the driveway to Centrepoint, spending time there as members or visitors.

And people’s perspectives on the commune depend on when they were there, and what was happening at the time. Like every organisation, Centrepoint went through seasons.

Beth St Clair was witness to most of Centrepoint’s history.

“I was a child of an early member of Centrepoint, and so I saw it from pretty much the beginning right through to the end,” she tells The Commune.

She now helps people who came out of Centrepoint and places like it.

“I’m a psychotherapist and I work predominantly with people who’ve come through trauma of various sorts.” 

She also runs a Facebook group for former fundamentalists and ex-cult members.

St Clair recognises that many people feel tainted by any association with Centrepoint. 

“They feel like it’s hard to talk openly to friends, partners, workmates. So often people have to hide or fudge where they come from, or their backgrounds.”

And that’s true, too, of people who spent time there as children, through no choice of their own.

Commune community news headline
The end: The demise of Centrepoint left no one happy – a fractious end to an idea that was meant to bring people together.

“There’s that sense … they would look like a bad person through being associated, even though they were young themselves.”

As well as that feeling of taint, or shame – for a lot of people there is pain.

“The majority of people who were there were basically good people, willing to take on a challenge in life and live their potential,” says St Clair. 

“I don’t think the majority of people had any intention of any of this happening and it’s very painful for a lot of them that it’s ended up this way because they invested their livelihoods, their properties, their reputations in this place, and then have ended up with something they have to carry for the rest of their lives.”

Of course, media coverage sometimes doesn’t help, especially when it focuses on the bad things that happen there. 

St Clair says some people ask where the balance is.

“It’s sometimes from people who were part of the original concept, who put their heart and soul into trying to create something beautiful … great, positive people doing therapy, genuinely wanting to help people break through things that were holding them back.

“All that stuff is true and there were lots of happy, delightful times. 

“But when you think about balance, how much positive stuff do you need to make up for one person’s life being destroyed?”

W letter img hile arranging interviews for the podcast, we got a lot of help from people who had been children at Centrepoint. Many have stayed in touch with each other over the years; others have re-connected more recently through Facebook, and through a website called the Centrepoint Restoration Project.

The project was set up by Caroline Ansley, who lived at Centrepoint as a child, and was abused there. 

Ansley says she set up the website because she was “desperate for connection with people who had had experiences like my own”, and wanted to create a space where those stories could be heard. 

She felt frustrated that for many ex-Centrepoint families, the commune’s history was being controlled by the adults, rather than by the children, and the crimes and traumas and failures of parenting at the commune were often being minimised. 

“I heard people express real confusion around their personal history. I was hearing a false narrative that protected the first generation but crushed the second generation, which forced people to question their own stories, their own memories, their own instincts. And that’s essentially gaslighting.

“For me it was about saying, ‘No, you don’t get to say what happens any more’; creating a space where we can say what happened to us.”

Commune community
In the spotlight: Not even having Bert Potter go to prison could shut down Centrepoint – that took campaigners several more years. Auckland Star Photo Archive 

In mid-2021, Ansley appeared in a TVNZ docudrama about the commune, Heaven and Hell. Around the same time an open letter was published on the Centrepoint Restoration Project website, calling for former adult members of Centrepoint to acknowledge “the harms caused to many of the children who lived at the community”. It also invited the adults to organise a “collective” and “open” response to the children.  

Ansley says: “We asked for an apology because we’d never seen a really clear response from the adults that was public … An injustice was done and we deserve it.”

The letter was signed by about 50 former child or adult residents, plus another 24 people who identify as close family of former children – their partners, spouses, children. But Ansley says the response since has been “a whole lot of nothing”. There has been no new public statement from Centrepoint adults.

T letter img o one Centrepoint founding member, Barri Leslie, this must sometimes feel like déjà vu. Since leaving the commune in 1991, she has been involved in a series of actions which she believed were about making right the harm that was caused by Centrepoint.

By the late 2000s, for instance, she had led a court case against the community, pushed to have it shut down, helped establish the trust which supports ex-children and members of Centrepoint, and backed a research project that looked into the impact the commune had on children.

And yet still she faced criticism, for instance in a letter from another ex-member in 2009, saying she was failing to take responsibility for what had happened.

“It gets hard because I think I’ve done something and then other people catch up,” says Leslie.

“It’s not unusual for someone to confront me, it has been a stream of people calling me names and telling me things.”

And so Leslie has got used to going through everything again, setting out the steps that have been taken already.

She supports what Ansley’s group is doing and has spoken to them.

“I sent them a list, ‘Here’s what we’ve done, which I thought was acknowledgement’.”

As frustrating as that sounds – repeatedly trying to do the right thing, but having to do it over again, or at least set out what’s already been done – Leslie says she understands.

“It’s not over till it’s over: that’s trauma recovery.”

No remorse: After leaving prison Potter never accepted that children at Centrepoint had been harmed by the sexual abuse committed there. Photo: Sunday Star-Times

No remorse: After leaving prison Potter never accepted that children at Centrepoint had been harmed by the sexual abuse committed there. Photo: Sunday Star-Times

A letter img nsley says she was “really disappointed, but not surprised” at the lack of response to the open letter, and she’s not dwelling on it.

She’s now focussing anew on the initial purpose of her website: encouraging Centrepoint people – especially those former children who feel their memories of abuse or neglect have been dismissed or undermined by other members of their family – to tell their stories.

“The focus now is on making sure our stories are in the history books.”

Ansley says for victims of abuse, there is also extraordinary therapeutic power in remembering – and possibly reframing – your own story. 

“As you start to tell your story, you bring adult reasoning and intellect into it, and you can change it.”

She gives an example:  “When I was at Centrepoint I used to dissociate – that’s stepping away from your emotional response and numbing yourself to it; it feels like you’re looking down at yourself.” 

Ansley is now a GP, and her training told her that dissociation was a symptom of severe psychiatric illness. 

But as she looked back at her own memories of her darkest days at Centrepoint, she realised that it was something she had done. And she realised it wasn’t because of any sort of mental illness: it was in fact a survival strategy that had allowed her to – in a sense – leave the room during times of danger. 

“In reviewing that as an adult, and writing about it, and thinking about it, I’ve moved from seeing it as a sign of disease and I’ve reframed it as a place of comfort and warmth; as a place to retreat to for safety. 

“The memory is still a memory, but I’ve changed it so it doesn’t hurt me.

“There is something quite remarkable about looking back over your history, as a powerful person in your own history, rather than as a victim.

“I wish everyone could rewrite their stories like I can.”

B letter img eth St Clair agrees that to move forward sometimes you need to look back.

“You’ve got to acknowledge what happened. You can’t expect to go, OK, let’s just forget all that stuff and carry on as if everything’s fine. People who did wrong need to at least acknowledge it.”

In the making of The Commune, we tried to speak to people who had been sent to prison for what went on at Centrepoint. Most of them did not want to talk to us.

They didn’t trust us, or they were concerned about the impact it would have.

But there was one woman who did speak – though only on condition of anonymity.

She was charged with the sexual assault of two teenage girls.

Commune community
Spoiling for a fight: Centrepoint ex-residents told The Commune podcast that Potter took delight in goading neighbours and the authorities. Auckland Star Photo Archive 

While she still disputes some of the facts around the cases, she pleaded guilty at the time and was sent to jail.

“It’s their story and they are living with that story,” said the woman. “I’m very sorry about that, but I can’t go back and change things. If any of them want to confront me, I’m very happy to do so, but not with the media present.”

She said she was also prepared to apologise, “absolutely”.

“In fact, I have put that out so many times, never been taken up on it.

“I am absolutely happy to apologise for my part in enabling –  I do believe that sexual abuse went on there and I enabled it by not speaking out.”

The woman said that, over the years, she’d come to see how many children were abused there. “I’ve come to see what a pretty sad picture it is.”

She’s also mindful of children who weren’t abused.

“They don’t speak out because they are ashamed to be associated with the place.

“It’s haunting them even though they’re not a victim and not a perpetrator.”

W letter img ill the pain of Centrepoint ever be over?

Barri Leslie says there is still a long way to go.

“It takes at least three generations for the trauma to be worked out.

“People actually say, ‘Look, it was a long time ago, put it away’. But this is the reality: when there's pain, when there's trauma – until it's resolved, we keep getting drawn back.”

The Commune is a 12-part Stuff podcast produced and edited by Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham. GET THE PODCAST
Words Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham
Illustrator Phil Johnson
Design and layout Sungmi Kim
Editor John Hartevelt

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The Commune contains discussion of themes that some people may find distressing. Click here for a list of support services and helplines

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