A study of 29 children who lived in Auckland's controversial Centrepoint Community headed by Bert Potter has found continuing effects on their adult lives.

A 260-page report from Massey University's School of Psychology was made public today.

Psychologists Kerry Gibson, Mandy Morgan and Cheryl Woolley were commissioned by the New Zealand Communities Growth Trust, set up by a High Court order a decade ago to manage Centrepoint assets after the commune was disestablished.

Up to 300 children stayed at the centre in Albany between 1977 and 2000, with the study finding that while some had positive experiences, others had suffered long-term effects from sexual abuse, parental neglect, drug abuse, manipulation and the stigma surrounding the community.

It was possible the three-year study understated the damage done, as some former community members now avoided all contact with others, raising the possibility some of those worst affected chose not to participate in the research.

"There were, however, others that valued their sense of belonging at the community, and who miss their childhood home," the researchers said.

Centrepoint was opened by Potter in 1977 and at its peak had a permit for 244 full-time residents. It was shut down in 2000 after some leaders, including Potter, were convicted on sexual abuse and drugs crimes.

Centrepoint was based on therapeutic encounter groups popularised in California in the 1960s, promising social transformation by encouraging open communication. Its philosophy included sharing toilets, showers, sleeping quarters, and open sexual relations among adults and children.

Researchers reported a variety of experiences, both good and bad.

Participants said being given drugs and coerced by adults into having sex, either with other children or with adults, made it difficult for them to adjust to life since they left the community.

Some reported positive effects, such as developing resilience, independence and good social skills.

Potter was convicted and sentenced to 3-1/2 years in jail in 1990 on drug charges, and 7-1/2 years in 1992 for indecent assaults on five children.

Five other men were convicted on charges of indecently assaulting minors, sexually assaulting minors and attempted rape of a minor.

Key report findings were:

* Centrepoint potentially exposed children to adverse circumstances well beyond the widely reported sexual abuse, such as drug use, psychological manipulation, parental neglect, witnessing abuse, corporal punishment, adult conflict, peer bullying and a parent's imprisonment;

* Negative impacts were psychological disorders, substance abuse problems, difficulties in intimate and family relationships, financial problems, lack of direction in education and career, fear of social stigma and, for some, uncertainty about their perception of reality;

* Different experiences, beliefs and coping strategies created a tendency towards factionalised perspectives about Centrepoint with some study participants arguing it was fundamentally abusive, and others that it was an ideal place to grow up;

* Stigmatised perceptions of Centrepoint were reported as being further sources of psychological distress;

Most participants agreed it was common to have sex for the first time between the ages of 11 and 13. Boys "propositioned" by older women found it easier to resist, while sexually abused girls -- some as young as 10 -- were "idealised" as "being in touch with their loving".

For some, sexual abuse was widespread, for others the way in which sexual activity was valued and normalised led them to doubt the incidents were abusive at the time, the report said.

Many expressed anger at the lack of responsibility shown by their parents, with one recalling being chastised as a teenager for "shaming" her mother after she challenged Potter's lewd suggestions.

For some the impact was as a result of witnessing what happened to other children. A woman said she felt "sick" after resisting Potter's sexual advances then watching her sibling engage in sexual acts with him.

She later learnt that Potter blackmailed children into having sex by threatening to separate them from their families.

Researchers said some former Centrepoint children now needed help to cope with psychological, substance abuse, financial management problems, life skills deficits, educational and career issues, as well as housing and health needs.

"Publicity around Centrepoint made it difficult for people to feel they could talk about their experiences," Dr Gibson said.

"A better understanding of what it was like to be a child at Centrepoint will be useful for health professionals and the broader public to respond more sensitively to the needs of former members of the community."

- NZPA