Dishonoured prophet will go - for a price

By WARREN GAMBLE

Bert Potter dozed yesterday in the back of the court hearing which could finally end his 23-year grip on the community stained with his criminal past.

The 74-year-old Centrepoint founder - jailed for child sex and drug offences - was perhaps dreaming of founding another community with the payment proposed to keep him and 11 followers out of the Albany commune for ever.

The payment, details of which will remain suppressed until it is approved by Justice Dame Silvia Cartwright in the High Court at Auckland, would also cover 13 children of Potter supporters.

It has been agreed to by three anti-Potter factions - the dozen people remaining in the commune who want to start a new community, former abused Centrepoint children and non-resident members.

Public Trust lawyer Dr John Priestley, QC, said yesterday that the deal was the price those groups must pay to get rid of the "malign influence" of the Potter group, known in the High Court civil case as the "old believers."

"It will undoubtedly give rise to outrage in some sections of the public," Dr Priestley said.

One of the anti-Potter members staying on at the bush-covered Mills Lane property, Ayran von Dreger, puts it another way.

He likens the deal to having a $50,000 sports car which has broken down with dirt clogging the fuel and brake lines. It costs you $2000 to get rid of the dirt, and afterwards the mechanic shows you what you have got for your money - a bowl of dirt.

But you also have a fine car.

Mr von Dreger prefers to talk about life without Mr Potter at the commune, which is now home to only 12 people, with 18 or so more non-resident members. The only resident children are two teenagers.

He prefaces his comments with the caution that he is speaking only for himself - in the new community there will be no leaders.

There will be a new name, still being settled, with no association with Centrepoint. The old believers will be invited to take the wooden Centrepoint sign at the entrance with them when they leave.

Gone, too, will be the legally questionable requirement for new members to hand over all their assets, as well as other Potter fetishes - the open toilets and showers will have doors and curtains added.

Mr von Dreger says the new group will fit in with a growing global network of "eco villages" and will be an asset to the community, which has been long suspicious of its controversial neighbours.

He is confident the dark stigma caused by the child abuse and drug offending will disappear with the old believers.

"We want everything to be open and transparent."

The aims of the new trust deed include therapeutic counselling of those who have suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse, including institutional and cult abuse. The Public Trust says medical and psychiatric professionals will first vet the programmes and people, and supervision will be continuing.

If approved, the settlement will end a bitter factional struggle between Potter supporters and opponents over control of the commune and its assets, now valued at around $10 million.

Under the terms of the original 1977 trust deed, Centrepoint existed for people to "receive the teachings of Herbert Thomas Potter." In the proposed new deed, all references to him will be deleted.

On his first day back at Centrepoint last March after his release from jail, he was unrepentant, saying he had harmed no one and owed none of his victims an apology. He maintained that sex between adults and girls under 16 could be "a very healthy thing."

He has since been back in court charged with breaches of parole conditions, and has recently been living outside Centrepoint.

Meanwhile, the civil case that led to yesterday's hearing has been working its way through the courts.

In July 1997, the High Court appointed the Public Trust, an independent Government agency, to replace the community's 10 trustees and sort out the dispute over the Centrepoint trust deed - in effect the rules that govern the community and its assets.

Potter supporters led by Dave Mendelssohn - also jailed for child sex offences at Centrepoint - challenged the Public Trust appointment all the way to the Court of Appeal, and were turned down in a bid to take it to the Privy Council in London.

They also filed a $110 million lawsuit against the Attorney-General for failing to protect the original trust, alleging breaches of religious freedom. The action was later struck out.

Appearing for the Public Trust yesterday, Dr Priestley told the High Court that part of the pragmatic settlement proposal was to avoid further litigation, which had already resulted in huge legal costs.

Mr Potter, a former owner of a pest control company, set up "encounter" therapy sessions in the early 1970s, first at Gillies Ave and then at Campbells Bay. He formed Centrepoint in 1977 with 36 others.

By 1988 there were 200 residents. Membership peaked at 275 in 1991, the year police arrested Mr Potter, five other men and two women on sex charges in a dawn raid.

In November 1992, he was sentenced to seven years and five months in jail after a jury convicted him on 13 charges of indecent assault against five girls aged between 3 and 15, all involving oral sex. He was sentenced to a further two years in 1994 for conspiring to supply the drug Ecstasy, and was released last March.

Mr von Dreger hopes the severance of all links to the founder will result in people returning to a democratic, caring community.

The Public Trust will continue its administration role over the new deed with the help of an advisory board. Dame Silvia yesterday indicated that she would be happy to see children's advocates and other professional bodies on that board.

Meanwhile, the settlement would allow Mr Potter and his remaining followers to start a new community.

They would not be drawn on any plans yesterday, but in 1998 Mr Mendelssohn admitted that he had been looking at buying a large parcel of land in Northland, although he denied it would be another commune site.

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