For an ex-member of New Zealand’s one and only ‘sex cult’, the parallels between Centrepoint and Gloriavale raise some serious questions about the government’s handling of sexual abuse accusations in religious communities, writes Anke Richter.
Three years ago I spent many afternoons on a sofa in Barri Leslie’s living room in Brown’s Bay, recording her life story. The retired psychologist had been one of the founders of Centrepoint, New Zealand’s infamous intentional community under the reign of guru Bert Potter, before she turned from ardent Bert-believer to anti-cult activist. Every time I left with stacks of photocopies, court documents, yellowed Centrepoint magazines and more burning questions than this expert could ever answer. The cover-up, the denial, the ongoing pain and accusations over sexual child abuse at the Albany community back in the ’80s and ’90s were still an unresolved emotional and legal mess. Wounds hadn’t healed, neither in Leslie’s family nor in so many others that were deeply affected by prison sentences, suicide, drugs and mental health problems.
Throughout its existence, not only did Centrepoint sail tax-free under the banner of a free-loving religious group – it was also a unique social experiment of personal growth that failed on the part of caregivers and authorities to keep hundreds of children safe. A tragic lesson in history, unmatched worldwide. Is it now repeating itself?
Over the two years that I looked into the aftermath of Bert Potter’s so-called “sex commune” for a book, Barri Leslie became my trusted analyst of all things cultish. She had spearheaded a small group that fought in court to finally have the Centrepoint trust closed in 2000 and the “Old Believers”, many of them former sexual offenders, sent off the land. The government agencies and the Crown didn’t help her. If it hadn’t been for a brilliant lawyer and the support of former Centrepoint girls who had bravely laid charges, Leslie might not have succeeded. That court case took six years and wore her out for good.
Since I last saw her, the 75-year-old has not only battled cancer but has been closely watching the unfolding of the Gloriavale saga with rising concern. She supported Green MP Catherine Delahunty who visited the remote West Coast community in 2015 in an attempt to get its school deregistered. Allegations about sexual abuse at Gloriavale had already surfaced then. Reading the recent government report on Gloriavale, which took 18 months to compile, is like a déjà vu for the mother of three – and a massive disappointment.
“When is our government going to respond to these kind of groups properly?” Leslie asks. “It is extraordinary that the same abuser has been accused by multiple women and no charges have been laid. They need a specialised committee to manage complaints of sexual abuse and an expert advisory panel to look into it, not hide behind ‘freedom of religion’.”
The early accusations have only come from those who left. “There is clearly nothing in place for victims to speak up safely from the inside.” Barri Leslie wonders if the government’s hands-off approach not only leads to less transparency but could make things worse, driving sexual abuse in Haupiri fully underground. She knows these dynamics all too well.
“When the elders feel observed from the outside, they will close ranks. There will be control over any complainant and pressure not to speak up. It’s pretty vicious how they silence people.” That was also the case back at Centrepoint. Parents who raised concerns, like Leslie at the time, were shut down by self-proclaimed ‘therapist’ Bert Potter and his allies, the “thought police”. The victims I interviewed, one as young as 11 at the time who hid in a caravan in a vain attempt to escape her predators, had no-one to go to. They thought what happened was normal in this context of early sexualisation. They were isolated and under group pressure to conform. The girls who laid charges once they had left were seen as traitors within the community. Even though the Centrepoint kids were all enrolled at local schools, they stuck to a code of silence in front of teachers and social workers about the going-on at their home.
The two cults seem to sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. Centrepoint was a freedom-seeking therapy group of middle-class bohemians who explored polyamory; Gloriavale is an ultra-conservative Christian sect that not only preaches monogamy, but just one partner for life. Yet strangely they were very aware of each other in the days when the pious blue-clad flock still called themselves the “Cooperites”. Centrepoint historian and author Len Oakes visited them and reported back to the Albany community in its early years. “They were in competition”, recalls Leslie. “Bert Potter wanted to be more successful and have more wealth and sexual power than Neville Cooper.”
There are in fact many parallels between the two “high-demand groups”, as Leslie calls them (“extreme demands on people financially and sexually which they then struggle to meet”):
- Both their patriarchal founders were convicted of sexual abuse (Bert Potter died in 2012).
- The lack of personal belongings and personal space; families sleep in one room together.
- The demonisation of a hostile world outside; that there is no-one out there who cares.
- Those who left were shunned and had not much more than the shirts on their backs. Often they were unable to handle ATM machines, bank accounts or cell phones in the “real world”.
- Last but not least, the sexual pressure on women: at Gloriavale, to produce children from a young age and be constantly available to a husbands’ physical needs; at Centrepoint, to be promiscuous, willing and sexually active even as a teenager.
The response by Gloriavale leaders this week to the government’s investigation was to deal with abuse accusations in-house first. That was also the approach at Centrepoint – and within the Catholic Church – with now well-known disastrous results and more cover-ups. According to a new Gloriavale policy, “involved parties” would be gathered together to “bring the offender to genuine repentance for their transgression towards the person”. For Barri Leslie, who treated a number of sexual abuse victims in her 20 years of counselling, this is absolutely irresponsible and against all standard policy in social work. “Safety for the victims must be the priority. In closed religious groups the victims need to be removed because the paternalistic power group cannot be trusted not to protect perpetrators, suppress evidence, re-traumatise victims and pressure victims to forgive rather than lay charges and require accountability.”
Barri Leslie was responsible for bringing her own daughters to Centrepoint over 30 years ago. She redeemed herself since by making it her mission that a similar destructive and secretive scenario would never happen again in New Zealand. “So when are we all going to learn from the Centrepoint experience,” she asks, “and not let it disappear into history?”