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Bert Potter -The Centrepoint Community

Bert Potter was released from jail on March 30, 1999. In a recent interview he said that he did nothing wrong and still believes that sex is appropriate with minors at the start of puberty but will follow the terms of his parole to avoid further jail time. Under the terms of his parole he must have no contact with a child under 16 years of age. He has returned to Centrepoint.

Although Centrepoint is classified in New Zealand as a religion, it is unique in many ways. Members consider it to be a spiritual community, with a belief that spirituality flows directly from their constant contact with Bert Potter.

To understand this more fully, one has to look firstly at Bert Potter, the self appointed guru of Centrepoint.

Herbert Thomas Potter was born in Christchurch on the 20 May 1925 to parents Fanny and Dick, preceding younger brother Lyndsay by five years.

He studied engineering at Christchurch Technical College and at the age of 16 joined the Home Guard. After his school days were over, he was accepted for Air Crew Training through the Air Training Corps. He never saw battle in the Second World War and after a brief stint working in New Zealand returned to the armed forces, where he was posted to Japan.

Upon returning to New Zealand he worked as a clerk for the Department of Labour, and enrolled in Otago University to study education and political science. He worked part time to support himself and during this period met and married his first wife, Leteia. They moved to Tauranga and Bert began his own business - prompting a further move to Katikati. The business was not a success so Bert resumed teaching.

In search of opportunities and money the young couple moved once again to Auckland, where Bert became a top salesman for the Electrolux vaccum cleaner company. Buoyed by his success, he went onto to form a carpet cleaning business and then later on pest control. At this stage his first son John was born and his family had grown.

Pest Free Services was a rapidly growing business that kept the family in a good lifestyle. Around this time he attended a Dale Carnegie course, which was to inspire him to run similar courses – often encompassing psychotherapy for clients in need of more personal advice.

Following the arrival of their daughter Anne, the Potters adopted another girl - Karen, and four years later the adoption of a further child named Ross grew the family to 6.

After the unexpected death of his boss, Bert decided to change his lifestyle once again. Interested in human psychology, he attended the Esalen growth centre in California for three months. Upon returning to New Zealand he gave up his business and decided to pursue a career in therapy. This led him to Dunedin and the setting up of the ‘Shoreline Human Awareness Trust’. What Bert termed “encounter groups” met at his home for nine-day sessions which lasted 11 hours each day. During this period, Bert’s marriage came to an end and his wife filed for divorce. Bert’s groups were ‘delving into different behaviors’ and Bert’s wife’s stated reason for their separation was that she did not believe in his new path.

Bert, after selling his home and business, moved into Gillies Ave, Epsom, Auckland along with a group of people with like-minded attitudes. This group went on to later form what we know today as the Centrepoint Community.

Around this time Bert made a journey to India to meet a renowned guru named Rajneesh. During this time his plans for a self-supporting community were being formed and on his return he held meetings on Tuesday nights to promote his concepts. Many found the idea appealing and after pooling their funds started looking for suitable land where the community could be founded. Finally in 1977 Bert put down a deposit for a 30-acre block of bushland near Albany, Auckland. They applied with the local council for permission to start a community on the above-mentioned land and Centrepoint became a reality.

A small farmhouse on the land was the first abode for the founders of Centrepoint and other families and singles camped in tents nearby. The initial months, with members adjusting to communal living, weren’t without problems. Plumbing, sewerage and living accommodations all had to keep growing to meet the community’s needs and lack of funds due to members leaving paid employment meant that the group had to set up a pocket money system where each member was given a weekly allowance.
All personal property became the community’s when anyone joined and often the greatest source of revenue was from new members liquidated assets. Meetings were held once a week and these often led to therapy sessions as members fronted with their feelings. Around this time the first child was born at Centrepoint in what was to become a regular occurrence of communal births. All members were asked to attend and support the mother as she gave birth.

A child crèche was established on the land and older children attended the local school.
People seeking this alternative lifestyle came and those finding it difficult went, while Bert encouraged the devotees to express whatever they felt - both emotionally and sexually. There was a freedom of choice and many couples found the greatest test in having an open relationship where sexual experimentation with other partners was encouraged. Communal counseling was a large part of Bert’s philosophy and many found themselves revealing all their hidden secrets. In 1978 the Takapuna City Council denied the Centrepoint community the right to live on the land, and so began the first legal battle over the right of members to live as they had chosen.

The appeal the community had lodged against the Council’s decision allowed them time to begin implementing plans for developing the site. However before they could legally construct any more buildings, permits were required - which were not forthcoming. At the planning tribunal conditional use of the land was granted, with the building permits now free to be issued. The tribunal stated that only sixty people were permitted to reside at Centrepoint, which at the time already had 58 residents. In effect this denied the residents the right to any further children or to marry outside the community unless they left.

Centrepoint continued to grow far beyond the specified number set by the tribunal. During this time members started living in car crates on the land and the original farmhouse was raised to build a main lounge underneath.

A spate of births occurred and the commune found it required a full time nursery so in 1979 a crèche was started with everyone taking turns looking after the young children. Marriage also was becoming popular. Some members worked outside Centrepoint and the money provided from their wages was used to keep the bills paid. Finally Centrepoint broke even in 1981 and longhouses were built to house up to 25 people and children. These consisted of a long room where members slept side by side.
A film was made in 1980 by Television New Zealand called ‘Centrepoint - A Spiritual Growth Community’. This caused great controversy and most New Zealanders watching feared a cult was forming in their midst. Shortly after this a Centrepoint member committed suicide on the property - overdosing on valium and a curare derivative stolen from her workplace at Auckland Hospital. Following the trail of bad publicity, Bert organised speaking engagements and appointed a public relations officer to project the right image for the community.

In April 1981, Centrepoint applied to increase its allowable numbers for people living there to 300. Although they were confident in relying on their status as a religious community to help pave the way, this was not too be. The Council received many objections including sworn testimony by an ex-member regarding the sexual practices within the community – including allegations of child sexual abuse. The Council in November of the same year turned down the application telling members they were not seen as a religious organisation. After this, two of the founding members, disillusioned, decided to leave - and many followed. One had been one of the therapists for the group who set up her own group soon afterwards. Bert reapplied to the Council which bought them more time,
Bert is quoted as saying “Every belief is a block to growth and must be questioned”.
but in the end the outcome was still the same and they were once again denied the right to house more people.

In October 1983 an amendment bill was passed through Parliament resulting in Centrepoint being fined $10,000 a day for violation of the limit of people legally allowed to live there. The council threatened to enact this - forcing the Centrepoint members to rent two factories in Glenfield, which they moved into to all stay together. In December, the owner of the property obtained an injunction to evict them from his property effectively rendering the group homeless. A marae was offered over the Christmas period and they moved in with a promise to be out by New Year. This started a period of living in buses and renting two houses from a gentleman believing in their freedom of living arrangements. They were duly forced to move out of these houses too - once the Council threatened to sue the owner of the houses for allowing the community to live there in illegal co-habitation. Later they found a barn to live in and launched a peaceful protest. Once again they were moved on from their own form of communal living in the barn by local authorities.

On June 19th 1985, after a series of long legal battles, Centrepoint was granted the right to have 224 members live at the commune in Albany - with a special landuse designation ending the squabbles about whether the community should obey the law relating to boarding houses or the law relating to hospitals.

Centrepoint was seen as a spiritual community by its members and was led by its guru, Bert Potter. The predominate principle is to liberate people by challenging them to experience everyday issues in different ways. This was evident in the open sexual practices within the community – with encounter groups meant to strip members of their vulnerability and allow them to open themselves to other members. This was done in intense seven-day sessions often with little sleep - the belief being that after these groups members would feel completely in touch with themselves. In order to achieve this it was taught that you had to surrender yourself completely to the process.

Bert Potter believed he was a god and all of us are gods to ourselves. Bert is quoted as saying “Every belief is a block to growth and must be questioned”. It was also said that to live at Centrepoint you had to live in Bert’s way and let go of your own power to shape and form your destiny.

Centrepoint had a minimal use for rituals with a couple of spiritual meetings each week at which Bert would give a talk on anything that he felt was right at the time. He would encourage members to open up about any resentment to other members.

Bert’s beliefs were influenced by what was out in the spiritual marketplace at the time. He would study new forms of therapy and experiment by applying these to his groups. Centrepoint also ran a therapy centre in the Auckland city centre at this time, more conventional in its approach to clients.

Bert used to give his members tasks to emotionally free themselves. One such reported task was a woman who believed she was unattractive to the opposite sex and so was told by Bert to sleep with every man in the Centrepoint community before Christmas day. Ex-members say this was merely a suggestion from Bert and was up to the individual member whether they did it or not, however because of his position many argue that a suggestion from Bert held more weight, becoming a direction from the revered guru. Family groups were also held to help with any family problems. Children were allocated a member of the community to talk to, and had to choose someone that was not a family member. However the benefits of this are highly speculative due to later behavior made public.

Early opponents of Centrepoint pointed to the danger of people joining a community where their lives were controlled by Bert Potter – a self confessed guru. It upset a lot of established religious groups offending them as they felt that no one had the right to take on the status or mantle of god. Many rumors of free sexual favors and child abuse were whispered in the early days – which later would unfortunately prove to be valid fears. Bert is quoted as saying “I believe children should be allowed to grow up from birth through to adolescence having sexual experiences appropriate to their own level”. This statement is, in itself, an omen of what was to come and the next ten years of Centrepoint were to see six members prosecuted for child sexual abuse.

So ends a brief history of the first ten years of Centrepoint - an interesting pre-cursor to what was to come.

Bert Potter was convicted on drug charges on Anzac Day 1990 in the Auckland High Court and sentenced to three and a half years jail. Charges came after a search of Potter’s home in the Centrepoint community yielded LSD and Ecstasy. Potter prior to this had always appeared to be a crusader against the use of drugs, and this was to lead on to more serious allegations being made regarding him having sex with minors within the confines of the community he ran.

In 1991 Centrepoint was again the site of a police dawn raid, this time leading to the arrest of six men and two women on indecent assault and rape charges spanning the period between 1978 and 1984. Centrepoint had experienced large growth in membership just prior to the arrests, and the trials in the Auckland High Court concluded with members of Centrepoint convicted and facing prison terms.

The convicted men were:
(all ages are stated as at the time of being found guilty on the associated charges)

Bert Potter, aged 67, charged and convicted of indecently assaulting five minors. His victims were as young as 3 and a half years old. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in November 1992.

Keith McKenzie, aged 71, charged and convicted of indecently assaulting a minor. He was fined $2,500 and later struck off the medical register, as he was a registered doctor at the time.

David Mendelssohn, aged 48, charged and convicted of indecently assaulting three minors. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Ulrich Schmid, aged 52, charged and convicted of sexually assaulting two minors. He was sentenced to one year in prison after a retrial.

Richard Parker, aged 45, charged and convicted of attempting to rape a minor. Sentenced to four years and five months in jail.

Henry Stonex, 51, guilty of indecently assaulting a minor. Sentenced to nine months jail.

A later conviction followed as victims told their stories, years after the events took place.

Kenneth Smith, 75, charged and convicted of indecently assaulting two minors. Sentenced to 200 hours community service and had to pay damages to each minor of $1,500. January 1995 – North Shore District Court.

All the names of the children involved and their testimonies were suppressed. The victims came together in March 1990 to make their complaints following a meeting organized by one of those subjected to the abuse. In 1998, in reaction to police confiscating computer equipment from Centrepoint after finding pornography stored in it’s database, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy (NZ actress with a high profile) voluntarily spoke out about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of Bert Potter. She is concerned that the community is still operating and the same thing could happen to children again.

There was a High Court decision rendered on 29 March 2000 by which the former Centrepoint Community was terminated; the Trust was substantially restructured, renamed The NZ Communities Growth Trust (NZCG Trust), and put under the control and management of Public Trust.

The New Community Society of NZ (NCSNZ), INC., leased 30 acres of the property of the NZCG Trust at Albany, and began an entirely new eco-village development there - named "Anahata Community" - in line with the decision of the High Court and the objects of the NZCG Trust - on 1 July 2000.

Back to Child Abuse Index

The history of Centrepoint and its leader Bert Potter who has been released from jail.

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