Zero tolerance for ritual humiliation


Drinking Ritual DisgraceThe Church is recognised as having tolerated abuse of children and young adults, and sometimes regarded it as character building, in connection with corporal punishment and activities such as drinking rituals at university residential colleges.

Yesterday’s Sun-Herald led with the story of a first-year female student at the Catholic St John’s College at Sydney University rushed to hospital after being pressured to consume an initiation drink during an Orientation Week ritual.

In recent years other colleges at the university have also had to deal with the entrenched culture of ritual humiliation involving alcohol and sex. A student from Wesley College at Sydney University wrote in 2009:

Many young women feel disempowered, or attempt to win male 'respect' by going along with their incessant chanting to 'get your tits out for the boys' – and losing their self-respect.

Yesterday’s Sun-Herald revealed that the St John’s College rector Michael Bongers has implemented the college’s zero-tolerance policy on excessive drinking and other anti-social behaviour which had been a more or less accepted part of the college’s culture for many generations. Bongers has suspended 30 students over the recent incident.

Suspending 30 students makes a powerful statement that ritual humiliation destroys rather than builds character, and it won’t be tolerated. It was a tough and potentially divisive decision that will involve collateral damage. The college is likely to take a substantial financial hit, and at least some of the 30 will feel they played little or no part in the offence and do not deserve to have their education disrupted.

Zero-tolerance is also the risky strategy that federal defence minister Stephen Smith employed in dealing with the Skype scandal in the defence force. He perceived that the message sent by Commodore Bruce Kafer’s insensitive timing of his disciplining of the alleged victim undermined public condemnation of the act, even though Kafer did not break any rules. Smith has put his job on the line, and hopefully he and the defence force will emerge stronger after the dust settles.

Military cadets and college students are at an impressionable and vulnerable stage of their life. Technically they are no longer minors, but they remain sensitive to many of the stresses that can undermine their confidence for the rest of their lives. It’s worth alluding to the positive energy created by the recent Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children inquiry.

In Eureka Street last week, Monsignor David Cappo highlighted its strategy of both prevention and high level intervention. He also discussed the interconnectedness of issues such as violence, alcohol and substance misuse and mental health problems. 

When a cocktail of such factors is placed in the hothouse environment of a military academy or university college with a tradition of robust behaviour, there is a certain inevitability in the result. But this need not be the case if those in charge are prepared to take decisive action to stop behaviour that has been tolerated in the past.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, church, military, defence, Skype scandal, David Cappo, sexual abuse, bastardisation



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Existing comments

It's a pity there was not a 'zero' tolerance in the Church's child abuse and its ongoing coverup and its refusal to compensate its victims properly instead of saving itself from financial embrassment!

Peter Lynch | 12 March 2012  

"with a tradition of robust behaviour", is just code for stupidity and bullying. Shame the Kommandant of the defence force show, doesn't undertsand that the same 'robust behaviour' still remains under his command, and I wonder when he is going to suspend 30 students for what seems to go on there every year, without fail. Above all though, in relation to this college suspension, it just shows that the whole pretence of Christians being better than anyone else is a total farce, and it is well past time we had to tolerate their lies and deceit for special status within society.

Andy Fitzharry | 12 March 2012  

It's within my memory that a student at the above named college died from the effects of a mixture of nitrous oxide and alcohol. And when I was at Sydney University I often saw crude, sexist comments chalked onto the paths attributed to young men from various of the colleges. I wonder what is the point of men's colleges. In John Burnheim's latest book he suggests that they are not centres of learning.

Graham English | 12 March 2012  

Congratulations to the rector of St John's University college. He is taking his task of caring for his students seriously and I pray he will be supported in his stand.

Marie Williamson | 12 March 2012  

i suppose in the past the long-term outcome of such disempowerment has been has been desired -- more easily manipulated constituants whose critical capacity have been reduced/annihilated. Thankfully today it seems that all societies are hoping for humans fully alive.

hilary | 12 March 2012  

I attended St John's College for one year in the early 1980s. It was one of the worst years of my life. At that time the College was male only, with a boorish, 'rugger bugger' culture. Heavy drinking was not only accepted and encouraged, but virtually compulsory. On their birthday, students were taken by a mob of seniors to the pub over the road and made to drink as many schooners of beer as they were years old (so 18 or 19 beers, in most cases). On at least one occasion drunken students caused extensive damage to College rooms and furniture. New students (‘freshers’) were forced to participate in degrading “initiation ceremonies” which were, in fact, little more than an excuse for vicious institutionalised bullying. The atmosphere was profoundly anti-intellectual and misogynistic. It seems little has changed.

Matthew | 12 March 2012  

I hope the Rector gets the support from the influential former students of the College and the community that he deserves. Stephen Smith has suffered much criticism for the courageous, no tolerance, stand that he took.

Sheelah | 12 March 2012  

Sounds like the college is doing at good job at nurturing future Liberal Party members and supporters.

AURELIUS | 12 March 2012  

It is a disgrace that the moderators of this site allowed the snide comment by Aurelius to get through. Where are your standards? How does this add to any constructive debate on the issue?

MJ | 12 March 2012  

I am unaware of any suggestion at all that Smith was putting his job at risk by his decisions and directives following the Skye indicent. Your evidence please, Michael. One egregious error by Smith was to call the incident a sexual assault. What the cadets did was a indisputably despciable. However, at no stage was Kate subjected to non-consensual sexual acts.

John Ryan | 12 March 2012  

To Aurelius, you will find that Catholic future of Liberal Party members and supporters are more loyal to our Holy Catholic Church, than members and supporters of the socialist alliance of Labor, Greens and Getup.

Ron cini | 12 March 2012  

MJ, maybe Aurelius makes the Liberal Party comment because the original article named both Tony Abbott & Joe Hockey as St John's oldboys. But perhaps such behaviour didn't occur in their years. Or maybe they weren't aware of it...

CMD | 13 March 2012  

CMD, I was not concerned about what connections may have prompted Aurelius to make his comment. I was concerned that the moderators here let it through. Both writers and posters at Eureka Street often lament the lack of civility in public discourse. I could not see how Aurelius's comment was within the bounds of polite or respectual discourse. It was a smart-alec remark that I think should not have been posted.

MJ | 14 March 2012  

As an old 'Johnsman', I can remind Graham that a college, while potentially preserving some of the old traditions of the university, is for most residents a glorified motel, where at best one is able to play footie and drink with one's mates; at worst ... the mind boggles.

Pat Mahiony | 14 March 2012  

Yes, CMD, it did. Like Tony Abbott, my brother went from Riverview into St John's College, but much earlier, in 1959, and aged still just 16. Harassment of freshmen was both ridiculous and severe. As sophomores they then paid back and continued the ?toughening conditioning. My brother became a heavy smoker and at least occasional user of relaxant and stimulants, on top of the College heavy drinking culture. He finally graduated, but had a life of depression, premature heart disease, dying at age 46. Did St JOhn's College traditions contribute in some way to a lost sibling and son, his broken marriage and three bereaved teenagers?

MARJORIE | 15 March 2012  

It seems my 'lack of civility' has hit a raw nerve amongst some commenting here - which tends to mean there is an unpleasant truth is my original comment, however disgraceful it may have seemed. Please remember that "comment" is comment. If you expect moderators to censor out what you deem not civil then heaven helps us!

AURELIUS | 16 March 2012  

I will be convinced that postures of indignation are genuine when this condemnation of ritual humiliation extends to the Catholic Church's official position regarding homosexuality, divorce, contraception, women Priests etc.

Leonie | 17 March 2012  

Initiation rituals were outlawed at the university I attended in South Africa in the 70s. I was stunned to read what was going on at St John's College in the year 2012. All thinking members of the college past and present should get behind the rector to stamp this kind of abusive behaviour out.

Colleen Kearey | 18 March 2012  

Michael Bongers is to be congratulated on showing real courage. There are many school boarding houses and residential university colleges in this country where a blind eye is turned to this sort of cowardly bullying. The traditional justification for it was that it "made you a real man" and "toughened you up". As Marjorie so graphically detailed it destroys lives. I hope St John's College Council backs the Rector all the way. They should, however influential the families of the students he stood down are. Does the ADF have a man or woman of similar courage to appoint to head Duntroon?

Edward F | 06 May 2012  

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