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From Centrepoint to Gloriavale, why are we still naive about sexually dangerous cults?

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

The following was published in the Spin Off this morning. I copied the text, without images, below.

This month’s Gloriavale hearing has been chillingly evocative of the abuse Dr Caroline Ansley endured as a child at Centrepoint in the 1980s. She asks, why do we still allow these predatory environments to thrive? And where is the ongoing support for their victims?

In 1983, when I was seven, I was fostered into the care of a family who lived in a faith-based community. My foster family lived on a large property in Auckland with hundreds of others. My foster parents followed the teaching of the community’s spiritual leader, a man who called himself god, and who they called their guru. While I lived at this community I was sexually abused, as were many of my childhood contemporaries who lived there.

The community I was fostered into was called Centrepoint, the now notorious commune which operated in the hills above Albany, on the North Shore of Auckland from 1978 to 2000. Like Gloriavale, Centrepoint operated as a charity, and had the religious freedoms of other faith-based communities.

Children mostly lived at Centrepoint with their parents, but many also lived there without the direct oversight of a parent, and even those who lived with their parents had limited contact with them. Centrepoint was a perfect environment for sexual predators, as people who attempted to push back against the community’s philosophies around the sexualisation of children were shamed into silence. And so, for much of the 1980s, children at Centrepoint were fed a relentless diet of explicit sexual content, and were taught, encouraged and pressured to engage in sexual activity with adults who expressed a desire for them.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in care is currently investigating religious and faith-based institutions. Last week Gloriavale, the fundamentalist Christian community on the West Coast, was examined. While on the surface Gloriavale and Centrepoint seem very different – the ethos at the latter revolved around open sexuality and fringe psychotherapy – the similarities between them are chilling. The stories being shared during the inquiry by survivors remind me of my own. They remind me of the stories I have heard in recent years from my peers, also survivors of sexual abuse at Centrepoint.

At Centrepoint a charismatic man — the community’s “guru”, Bert Potter — had too much power and little accountability. He instilled into his teachings the philosophy that sexual activity between adults and children was normal and healthy. As a result, he was able to openly access the children sexually without restraint, and he enabled a culture where other adults did the same, where the children were taught that their bodies were not their own, and that their instincts and feelings were wrong.

At Glorivale, two generations have been raised with no understanding or awareness of the norms of the outside world, in an isolated and distorted environment where the boundaries around sexual activity have become blurred, and where their leaders act and speak for God. Intergenerational abuse has become ingrained into family systems. Last week Howard Temple explained to the inquiry that the leadership of Gloriavale recognise that they have managed previous accusations of sexual abuse poorly, and that serious efforts are being made to stop it from reoccurring.

I scoffed at his words as I heard them. When Centrepoint’s leaders were forced to face the reality of the abusive environment they had created for their children, things did not change — they just went underground. Similarly, carefully planned words of contrition from Howard Temple for the benefit of the inquiry will not bring about the kind of radical systemic culture change needed at Gloriavale to keep the children there safe.

In the early 1990s members of the Centrepoint leadership, including Bert Potter, were jailed for sex crimes against minors. Did these convictions result in the abuse stopping? I didn’t live at Centrepoint after the convictions, but I’ve heard a number of personal accounts from former children of the community who said that the abuse became less visible but it did not stop. For another eight years, while the legal wheels were turning to close the community, and while New Zealand continued to tolerate Centrepoint, children continued to experience ongoing abuse. Last week, former Gloriavale member Rosanna Overcomer stood in front of the Royal Commission and asked what was being done to protect the children of Gloriavale’s community. She suggested that governmental agencies chose to overlook the signs that abuse of children was happening at Gloriavale. She stated that “When people in positions of power have no accountability they create a path of hurt and destruction.” Gloriavale continues to operate in a context where women and children have little power, and a male-only band oversees and controls the lives of the over 600 people who live there, most of whom have never known any other way of life. Intervention to support those who live at Gloriavale or wish to leave comes from a band of volunteers in the form of a charity called The Gloriavale Leavers Trust. These generous people help leavers to rehabilitate into New Zealand society, and start life in the world outside of Gloriavale.

Where is the action from the government to support people who are ready to leave Gloriavale, or other similar cult groups? Where is the action from agencies to inform and educate New Zealanders about how to avoid and recognise psychologically abusive groups who exercise coercive control over their members? Where is the governmental organisation that people can go to for support when they leave groups like Gloriavale, emotionally spent, traumatised, with no means to support themselves? Where is the agency that trains and supports therapists to gain expertise in the effects of coercive control, so they can appropriately support leavers to heal? What is being done to prevent groups like these from operating outside of the law, without accountability, with the vulnerable paying the price of a nation’s naivety and misplaced tolerance?

For cults to lose their power to gain new victims, the general population needs to move away from the judgemental perception that only weird people join cults, to a more nuanced understanding that anyone, at any stage in their life – particularly at vulnerable periods – is at risk of being drawn into a cult. Cults work because they are led by experts at reading people, who know how to exploit weaknesses and insecurities and who work to turn people against each other.

Without a centralised agency with a therapeutic arm, and a prevention/education arm, there will be nothing to stop another Centrepoint or Gloriavale springing up and another generation of children being abused, and the trauma tearing their families apart. Without a centralised service there will be no change to the national ignorance on this topic, and nothing for leavers to escape to.

While the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in care continues, and evidence is heard, and the nation sits and thinks about this, how many children in unsafe communities are lying in bed and fearing the unwelcome visit of an adult predator in the night?

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