From Centrepoint to Gloriavale, why are we still naive about sexually dangerous cults? – The secession | Team Cansler

This month’s hearing in Gloriavale is a chilling reminder of the abuses suffered by 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 years old, I was taken into the care of a family who lived in a faith community. My foster family lived with hundreds of others on a large property in Auckland. My foster parents followed the teachings of the spiritual leader of the community, a man who called himself God and whom they called their guru. While living in this community, I was sexually abused, as were many of my peers who lived there.

The community I was promoted to was called Centrepoint, the now infamous community that operated from 1978 to 2000 in the hills above Albany on the north coast of Auckland. Like Gloriavale, Centrepoint operated as a charity and had the religious freedoms of other faith-based communities.

The children mostly lived with their parents at Centrepoint, but many also lived there without the direct supervision of a parent, and even those living with their parents had limited contact with them. Centrepoint was a perfect environment for sex offenders, as people who tried to speak out against the community’s philosophies regarding the sexualization of children were silenced. And so, for much of the 1980s, children at Centrepoint were fed a relentless diet of sexually explicit content and were taught, encouraged and pressured to engage in sexual activity with adults who expressed desire for them.

Centrepoint director Bert Potter had many philosophies about the proper upbringing of children. (Photo: Included)

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care is currently investigating religious and belief-based institutions. Last week Gloriavale, the West Coast fundamentalist Christian community, was under investigation. While Gloriavale and Centrepoint appear very different on the surface – the latter’s ethos revolved around open sexuality and fringe psychotherapy – the similarities between them are startling. The stories told by survivors during the investigation remind me of my own. They remind me of the stories I have heard over the years from my colleagues who have also been victims of sexual abuse at Centrepoint.

At Centrepoint, one charismatic man – the community “guru” Bert Potter – had too much power and little accountability. He brought into his teachings the philosophy that sexual activity between adults and children was normal and healthy. This allowed him to freely approach children sexually and enabled a culture where other adults did the same, where children were taught that their bodies are not their own and that their instincts and feelings are wrong.

At Glorivale, two generations have grown up with no understanding or awareness of the norms of the outside world, in an isolated and distorted environment where the lines around sexual activity have been blurred and where their leaders act and speak for God. Intergenerational abuse is rooted in family systems. Last week, Howard Temple told the Inquiry that Gloriavale’s leadership recognizes that it has dealt poorly with previous allegations of sexual abuse and that serious efforts are being made to prevent a recurrence.

The West Coast Christian Church in Gloriavale has grown to about 600 members. (Photo: Included)

I scoffed at his words when I heard them. When Centrepoint leaders were forced to face the reality of the abusive environment they had created for their children, things didn’t change – they just went underground. Similarly, carefully planned words of remorse from Howard Temple on behalf of the investigation will not bring about the kind of radical systemic culture change needed in Gloriavale to protect the children there.

In the early 1990s, members of the Centrepoint leadership, including Bert Potter, were jailed for sex crimes against minors. Have these convictions caused the abuse to stop? I did not live in Centrepoint after the convictions, but I have heard a number of personal accounts from former children in the community who said the abuse became less visible but did not stop. For another eight years, while the legal wheels turned to shut down the community and while New Zealand continued to tolerate Centrepoint, children continued to be abused.

Last week, former Gloriavale member Rosanna Overcomer stood before the Royal Commission and asked what was being done to protect the children of the Gloriavale community.

She suggested that government agencies were overlooking the signs that child abuse was taking place in Gloriavale. She stated so When people in positions of power are left unaccountable, they create a pathway for injury and destruction.” Gloriavale continues to operate in a context where women and children hold little power, and a male-only band monitors and controls the lives of the over 600 people who who live there, most of whom have never known any other way of life. Intervention to support those who want to live or leave Gloriavale comes from a group of volunteers in the form of a charity called The Gloriavale Leavers Trust. These generous people help dropouts to integrate into New Zealand society and start a life in the world outside of Gloriavale.

Where is the government action to support people willing to leave Gloriavale or other similar cult groups? Where is the action taken by the authorities to inform and educate New Zealanders on how to avoid and identify mentally abusive groups who control their members under duress? Where is the governmental organization that people can turn to when they leave groups like Gloriavale, emotionally exhausted, traumatized and without means to support themselves? Where is the agency that educates and supports therapists in gaining expertise in the effects of coercive control so they can adequately assist dropouts in healing? What is being done to prevent groups like these from operating unaccountably outside the law, with the vulnerable paying the price for a nation’s naivety and misplaced tolerance?

For cults to lose their power to attract new victims, the general populace must move away from the judgmental perception that only weird people join cults and into a more nuanced understanding that everyone is at every stage of their lives, especially in times of peril in danger of being drawn into a cult. Cults work because they are led by experts in reading, people who know how to exploit weaknesses and insecurities, and who work to turn people against each other.

Without a central agency with a therapeutic arm and a prevention/education arm, nothing will prevent another Centrepoint or Gloriavale from occurring and another generation of children from abuse and trauma tearing their families apart. Without a central service, nothing will change the national ignorance on this issue, and there are no escape routes for dropouts.

As the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in care continues and evidence is heard and the nation sits and ponders, how many children in unsafe communities lie in bed fearing an unwanted visit from an adult predator in the night?

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