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Prince of the Commune

By June 13, 2021July 12th, 2021North&South

Prince
Of The
Commune

The victims of sexual abuse at the Centrepoint community are speaking out — but what about accountability for the perpetrators? John Potter, the son of Centrepoint guru Bert Potter, gives a rare glimpse into the mindset of an abuser.

By Anke Richter

Illustration by Imogen Greenfield

It took three decades for the survivors to feel safe enough to speak out. This May, in the TVNZ documentary Heaven and Hell, three women talked openly for the first time of their experiences at Centrepoint as children and teenagers. Founded by pest exterminator turned self-appointed therapist Bert Potter in 1977, it was ostensibly a counselling commune on the outskirts of Albany dedicated to overcoming sexual repression. It is now better known as a sex cult. A Massey University study found that during Centrepoint’s 23 years of operation, one in three children who lived there may have been abused.

One reason it has taken so long for this disturbing chapter of New Zealand social history to emerge into the light is that for hundreds of former residents, Centrepoint is not just a salacious scandal. It was their home, and it is still an alive and destructive force in many ways. While many who lived there in childhood were unharmed and hold happy memories, for others unprocessed trauma has led to mental breakdowns, suicides and addictions. Among those still in contact, the community is split into numerous factions. There are children aligned with their pro-Centrepoint parents, others who are vocal or angry and some who try to negotiate between them. There are perpetrators and victims in the same family; sometimes in the same person. Before the documentary aired, I heard stories about silencing in prominent Centrepoint families that were almost as disturbing as those about the cult itself. The shame runs deep, as does a lingering “us versus them” mentality.

No convicted sex offenders appeared in the documentary. (I was a research consultant on the project.) Of 60 adults we contacted, four came on board. One man expressed remorse for not doing more to protect the younger ones. Another woman said, “I didn’t realise that good, kind, loving people could also be sexually abusive.”

Given that only about a dozen Centrepoint abusers ever faced charges (some with name suppression), the lack of accountability remains a major obstacle to healing for some survivors. A restorative justice effort for children of the community called the Centrepoint Restoration Project is underway, led by a Christchurch doctor, and an Auckland therapist is offering workshops.

The silence of the perpetrators has also prevented a wider understanding of how Centrepoint could have happened here. Its founders were doctors, nurses, teachers, psychiatrists and other middle-class professionals who wanted to heal what was broken in them. How did this idealist undertaking come to break so many others?

Only one Centrepoint offender has ever spoken about his actions: John Potter, Bert’s son, who was seen by other residents as the “prince of the commune”. He moved there in 1978, when he was 19. He left after seven years and later returned with his second wife, Felicity Goodyear-Smith. The couple lived next to Bert from 1988 until 1990, when Bert was arrested and sentenced to three-and-a-half-years in prison on drug charges. In 1992, he received a further sentence of seven-and-half years for the indecent assault of five children. John pleaded guilty to the assault of underage girls and was imprisoned for four months. Bert died in 2012, and at the funeral John apologised on behalf of his father, as well as “anyone hurt by either my actions or inactions”.

“I mean, I knew I was likely to go to jail.”

I interviewed John Potter two years later, while researching a book about Centrepoint. At the time, I was startled by his willingness to speak openly on the record of his sexual interactions with underage girls. One was Louise Winn, who moved to Centrepoint when she was 10 and was assaulted by Bert and later John. She tried to kill herself when she was 12. Winn was among those who later laid charges against both men. Before Bert’s trial, she says, a Centrepoint “delegation” visited her and “intimated I would hurt a lot of people if I went ahead”.

My interview with John Potter was never published: the book project folded. But with the voices of Centrepoint survivors finally being heard, that conversation with the guru’s son offers an insight we almost never get into the mindset of an abuser who is still learning to understand the harm he has done.

Potter is now retired, a father of three. He and Felicity still live in Albany, together with Suzanne Brighouse — Bert Potter’s “thought police” — who also served a prison sentence. Over the years, Potter and Goodyear-Smith have been active in groups that claim sexual abuse accusations are often exaggerated or invented. Goodyear-Smith, a professor at Auckland University’s medical school, is the author of the controversial book First Do No Harm: The Sexual Abuse Industry. Potter is the webmaster for the “masculinist” site MENZ. He also set up a members-only “Centrepoint Community” website — an archive for Bert Potter’s talks and a place to keep memories alive.

This May, when more than 50 adults, including John Potter‘s first wife, signed an open letter asking for accountability, I asked him whether he had changed the views he expressed in the interview about his sexual encounters and his interactions with Louise Winn. “No” was his answer to both questions. He added that he would apologise privately to former members of the community “if that would help their healing”.

Our “peace meeting”, as he called it, took place on a sunny autumn morning in 2014, on the grounds of the former Centrepoint site. John, an avid cyclist, arrived by bike. Then 57, he had a shaved head and wore a single earring. We sat on the grass in the Glade, where adults and teens took ecstasy together in group experiments and where Potter got married twice.

At times during our three-hour conversation, which I recorded, Potter expressed remorse. But he was also visibly startled when I told him of Winn’s ongoing trauma, saying: “I find that pretty surprising that I would be such an important part of her life, when I can barely remember.”