Updated: Mar 14
It has been over six months since I listened to the 2022 Stuff 12-part podcast series "The Commune", from Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham. Why have I taken this long to write about it? It was intense listening. The initial strong feelings I had at the time have abated, and now I am left with less intensity. I have had a chance to mull it over, think about the themes and the voices, what was said, and what was omitted, and how it has affected me. I have talked it over with a few people for whom the story of the community has deep personal meaning. I have listened to their thoughts and feelings and I have shared mine.
In total "The Commune - Sex, drugs - and a guru called Bert", which has been selected as a finalist for an international broadcasting award, and was winner of the 2022 New Zealand Podcast of the Year award, is made up of around nine hours of history, hypothesis and recollection. The accounts are personal, told by people who lived at Centrepoint community, or drifted around the edges but had intimate involvement for a time.
The podcast arrived into my wireless headphones in one dump of sound. The carefully pulled together information - which has been for so long inaccessible, absent, unknown, or patchy - arrived abruptly, intrusively. I could manage my feelings in my own way, alone on the couch. I could take it at my own pace. At the time I was in isolation at home with my family with Covid-19, coughing and sniffing and gargling. I had nothing else to do, and so I listened to hour after hour over four days.
While listening I sent messages out to friends, or to others I had come to know along the way. Messages of encouragement - “It’s not so bad, I’m up to number three and its going good so far” - or reassurance - “I’m sure you are getting a lot of flack for your interview but I am very grateful that you took this step” - or thanks - “I have never heard such a complete story before - thank you for all the effort of putting it together”. About twenty people were interviewed and I know more than half of these people personally, and most of the rest by name. I listened to voices I know, talking about other people I know, and the parts of the story that could not be told because permission has not been given or identities must be protected… I know many of these details too. I listened and each new piece of information answered questions that have sat within me for decades.
I spoke with a friend a few days later. She had just finished listening too.
“There are two things I appreciate the most,” I said to her. “The opportunity to have a full picture of the history is the first. There is no getting away from the fact that people knew that children were being sexually abused at Centrepoint while we were there. They simply cannot say they did not know. They did, but they did not act. This history states that clearly. No longer can the adults in our lives say they didn’t know. They did know.”
She murmured agreement.
“And the second thing, is this is a record of some of those few people who did act. Who tried to protect the children, and tried to change things, and tried to bring about justice, and who succeeded in closing the community. I didn’t realise the extent of it, and I am glad I do now. I am not sure why that matters to me, but it does.”
“It matters to me too,” she said.
We sat in silence, pondering this.
“The Commune” follows the story of Barri Leslie, one of the original founding members of Centrepoint community, who after a few years in the community realised that it was rotten on the inside. She worked hard to try to bring about change, and eventually left once tensions became so high that she felt unsafe. Once she was on the outside, she continued to fight to close the community, with the support of other key figures inside and outside the community. As well as interviews with Barri, there are interviews with police officers who struggled to get convictions to stick, neighbours and teachers who had concerns but could not get any traction, and the original whistler blower who first went to the police with evidence of child sexual abuse. When the police enquiry that eventuated from his complaints dried up, he went to the press. He did everything he could to broadcast that Centrepoint was dangerous for children.
Why does it matter that a handful of people had conviction, and took steps - even failed steps - decades ago to protect the children of the community? Even those actions that did not lead to change? For some reason - that neither of us can articulate - it matters enormously to us both.
“I was drawn in by the articles you wrote about restoration, about apology,” my friend said, referring to the first time she came across material I had written about restoration on this website. “It stirred me up, it inspired me, it made me realise that this mattered to me. But then I talked to a few other children and they scoffed and dismissed it, and that feeling in me crumpled. And I felt a bit stupid for wanting it.”
“But are you stupid for wanting that?” I replied, “Wanting the awful things that happened to us acknowledged and atonement to follow - or at least an attempt at atonement? That speaks to our humanity. I don’t think you’re stupid - I think you’re human. I’m the same. When I see evidence that someone took steps to close down Centrepoint to protect children like us - particularly when it cost them dearly - that is very meaningful to me.”
I thought of the band of misfits interviewed for the podcast, who tried to protect the community's children, and whose actions had slipped into oblivion - until only recently resurrected by journalistic examination - and I felt grateful.
“I’m going to own that as my own," I said, "even if I was not one of the children that they were fighting for.”
No visible, corporate action has resulted from the open letter which was penned by myself and two others in May 2021. We wrote this letter to the former adults of the community. It has been signed subsequently by fifty of so former members and children of the community, along with others who support them. It asks for acknowledgement and restorative action, and an honest attempt to address the history that the children of the community carry. Since "The Commune" podcast aired in June 2022 I have been thinking and wondering about the action that was taken in the past to close the community, and how that action stands alongside the action we asked for in May 2021, but did not receive. I have been thinking about those people who successfully managed to close down Centrepoint, stopping the ongoing damage to another generation of innocent children. That historic action matters enormously, but is it enough that it ends there, and is it reasonable to ask for more?
I attended an online conference last year - the International Cultic Studies Association conference - in 2022. One thing stayed with me from the conference. After listening to multiple first hand accounts at the conference, from people from a wide range of cults or high-control groups, it struck me that cult groups don't seem to get closed down. In fact, one of the founding members of ICSA stated in his talk that in over thirty years of work in cult prevention and intervention, he has realised that cults usually don't get closed down. The best action to take, he said, is to mitigate the risk. Stop cults from starting, educate the population about what to look for, support families to get their loved ones out...but closing them down... that is almost impossible. As I reflected on his words I thought, "Centrepoint got closed down. Huh."
The podcast raises this issue. It highlights how much work and determination it took for people on the inside, and then on the outside, to push through the resistance, to finally end the power of the community. We can see that now as we watch the enormous power and financial resources of Gloriavale coming down onto the shoulders of individuals in the civil court cases currently happening in Christchurch and Greymouth. Gloriavale versus a few individuals really is a David and Goliath situation, and watching this unfold gives me some understanding of what it took to close down Centrepoint 23 years ago. I am grateful for those people who fought and fought for that outcome, and I truely hope such an outcome is possible for Gloriavale too.
But is it enough for the former adults of Centrepoint to look back now and say, "I did enough back then. Now I'm finished." I'm not sure. I think that taking action back then, to close Centrepoint, was the right thing to do. It shows determination and courage and integrity. Yet I don't think it fixes the wounds that still remain now. It is like the difference between a parent fighting to get their children out of a house fire, and succeeding in doing so, yet failing to address the ongoing consequences of the fire - smoke inhalation, third degree burns, PTSD, the death of the family cat. Different actions are needed at different times. Does a parent say, "I got you out of the fire. That is enough. I don't need to help you with the skin graft surgery for your burns. I don't need to cry with you as we bury your cat. It's not my job to help you manage the lung condition the smoke inhalation left you with." Both the rescue and the repair are needed for the children to heal from the effects of the fire.
Knowing about what was done to shut down the community in the 1990s potentially does help people heal and forgive, and lay the past to rest, yet it does not replace the need for honest acknowledgement of the harms that occured to children while many adults of the community failed to protect them. It does not replace the need for repair work in the relationships which were blown apart as a result. The open letter was about acknowledgement and repair, and I believe that that is yet to be done. For some people it is what they need to move on. For others they are not waiting any longer. I am not waiting, but just because it is not coming, because many people have hardened their hearts to the possibility, it does not mean that we were naive to ask for it.
Asking for, and waiting for something broken to be repaired, is a human thing to hope for. We are not stupid to ask and hope for it. We are simply human.