Paedophile cop 'aided abuse' at Centrepoint

Children in Bert Potter's Centrepoint commune suffered a decade of abuse after initial attempts to investigate child sex allegations there were allegedly stymied by a paedophile senior policeman.

A retired detective who, in the 1980s, was the first to make inquiries into the new-age Auckland commune and uncover allegations of child sex abuse, revealed to the Sunday Star-Times last week that a former colleague hampered a raid on Centrepoint by meeting cult leader Potter to "smooth the waters" around unwelcome inquiries into his commune.

During the meeting, the high-ranking policeman – who had previously discouraged the detective from pursuing the inquiry – gave in to Potter's demand to be present at any interview at Centrepoint. The subsequent interviews with stonewalling parents yielded no evidence of abuse, and the inquiry stalled until a decade later, when Potter and seven of his followers were convicted on multiple counts of indecent assault.

The senior policeman, it was later discovered, was himself a paedophile: convicted in 1995 and sentenced to six years in jail for molesting two victims over a period of nearly 30 years, both before and after the 80s Centrepoint interviews. Neither he nor the detective can be named, to protect the identities of the victims.

The retired detective believes his former colleague's accommodating stance to Potter was partly due to professional incompetence – he wanted the case to go away – but also a reflection of his own predilections.

"I would say his own moral values and offending affected his judgement when he was talking to Potter," he said.

"We had a big operation lined up. We were going to hit it, freeze the scene and separate them all – that's the situation in which people are most likely to say things that are true."

But as a result of the meeting with the cult leader, "Potter laid the ground rules for the inquiry, when it should have been us".

Potter was subsequently present at every interview, in which parents uniformly refused police permission to interview any of the 60 children then in the commune. At Potter's request, the detective was not permitted to participate in the interviews on community grounds. He investigated the possibility of taking the commune's children into the custody of social services for interviews, but his superiors considered there to be insufficient evidence to justify such an action.

"What upset me the most was it meant offending against children that could have been stopped at the outset was allowed to continue," said the detective, adding there was no suggestion his colleague had co-offended with Potter, or had any involvement in activities at the commune.

Founding Centrepoint member Barri Leslie estimated that about 50 children would have been abused in the decade following the 1980s interviews until the eventual raid in which Potter and others were arrested. She said that in the early years of the community, founded in Albany in 1978, most of the children were subject to some degree of abuse, which was carried out overtly, in accordance with Potter's philosophy that "intimacy" and "exploration" between adults and children was natural and desirable. The police interviews, while failing to secure any arrests or close the commune, drove the abuse underground.

By the late 1980s, Potter's activities included giving girls large quantities of LSD and ecstasy before trying to molest them.

Few former residents of Centrepoint, where an estimated 250 children had passed through and about 60 babies were born, were aware of how "the two old sex abusers had sat and had a cup of tea and told the young cop to leave it", Leslie said.

"I guess it was two guys with similar values protecting each other," she said. "Bert was making it a 'good' thing to do; he was developing a philosophy that it was good for children to have early sexual experiences. Bert gave that senior police person a rationale and justification for doing what he was doing. And he gave Bert protection. That's how it works, doesn't it?"

A fellow former resident – the mother of a girl who had been abused – had described to her the "chilling effect" of having Potter present while being interviewed by police in the 1980s. "The way things were she was more worried about upsetting Bert than about putting things right for her daughter."

The retired detective said he had initially begun making inquiries after receiving a complaint from a man whose wife, a mental health outpatient receiving treatment for postnatal depression, had attended one of the community's "encounter groups". The woman returned from the weeklong retreat with the news she had slept with half a dozen Centrepoint men. While no offence had been committed, the detective became suspicious about the spiritual community, where Potter, a Christchurch-born salesman-turned-therapist, preached liberation through sexual freedom.

The presence of so many children at the community – where members walked around naked, showered and toileted without doors, and exchanged sexual partners freely – worried him and, despite being told by his colleague to abandon his inquiries, he eventually obtained an admission from a disaffected former Centrepoint member that child sex abuse was taking place. Following this breakthrough, he was preparing the operation when his superior received a call from an angry Potter, who believed the detective was persecuting him because of his Christian faith.

The senior officer urged the detective to meet Potter, saying: "I think I can smooth the waters". The detective replied he had no interest in talking to Potter, other than in a formal police interview. The next week, the detective received a call summoning him to his colleague's office, where he found Potter and the senior officer in the middle of a silver tea service.

"I was flabbergasted," said the detective. "All my work was gone. I was really livid."

The inquiry was shelved, until about a decade later when, he said, "exactly what I knew would happen, happened. The young ones grew up."

The woman whose complaint prompted the successful prosecution against Potter believed the police officer's thwarting of the investigation had nothing to do with incompetence.

"He met with Bert and had an agreement as to how the inquiry would proceed so it would not go anywhere. He was complicit in disabling any inquiry."

Centrepoint finally closed in 2000, not long after Potter was released from his nine year sentence. Approached last week, the 84-year-old, now living alone in Parakai, northwest of Auckland, said he did not remember the senior officer or the particulars of his meeting with him, as it happened so long ago.

He remembered the detective, however. "Not the most popular man in Auckland as far as the community was concerned. He was a pain in the arse, to be frank. He stuck his nose in and kept pushing to try to make something happen."

Reminded that the detective's suspicions had been well-founded, Potter was defiant. "No! The children were having a wonderful time. I wish I had been brought up in a community like it."