The St John’s Incident: The Shaking of the Stones

I recently wrote of a New South Wales University-affliated college where hazing had reached dangerous and thuglike levels. It now appears that the publicity that these events have been granted in some parts of the media (I say some because the ‘Australian’ main news site,, is carrying very little on this, and almost all of this is coming via the Sydney Morning Herald) is now having a desirable effect upon those who can change the College’s direction. Both the Archbishop of Sydney and the Premier (State government leader) of New South Wales have come out swinging. Cardinal Pell has requested that all of the Catholic priests associated with the College council resign their positions, leaving the council unable to function, and the Premier has made some (what must be very ominous) statements to the effect that the government may consider changing the acts that define and control the College.

Remember that incident I mentioned where the teenage girl had to be hospitalised? The 33 students who were directly involved were originally assigned community service, suspension and were barred from holding committee positions or offices for the rest of the term. After a rather interesting appeals process, most of these requirements were quashed, including the “no office” requirement. Of course, now this means that seven of the nine members of the student house committee will come from the 33 students who nearly killed a girl by intimidating her into drinking a rather unpleasant cocktail of things designed to make someone sick. I should mention, however, that this drinking incident was seen as ‘justice’ for the terrible crime that this girl, and four others, had committed.

Her crime? She had walked forwards at a time when she should have been walking backwards. That is, of course, worth public degradation and a night in the hospital!

One of the other Council members, Roslyn Arnold, resigned her position earlier this year, in disgust at the actions she was seeing and the way that the council was not acting to address the issue. In this article, she says, quite sensibly, that the current toxicity of the student environment at the College is nothing that a sane parent would wish on their children. But it’s also about stretngth of leadership and having the guts to say when something is wrong. As she says in the article:

“In whatever sphere of influence you function, part of the price of being a truly good leader is speaking out.”

One of the less pleasant things that has emerged from all of this is that the culture of initiation and inappropriate behaviour at St John’s has apparently been going on for many years. The Honourable Joe Hockey, MP, a federally elected politician and the Shadow Treasurer, is a Johnsman (a previous college attendee) and he had this to say, in this article, after confirming that rituals had been in place when he was at St John’s:

”Let’s not gild the lily on this sort of stuff,” he said.

”I think if you open the lid on colleges and campuses and frat houses right around the world … by the general standard of behaviour, it would be deemed to be pretty lewd and inappropriate.”

Hang on – everyone’s doing it so it’s ok? No wonder there’s a discipline problem at St John’s, if the likely outcome of involving previous alumni is that they are so convinced that ritual abuse if just something that happens around the world. I should note that another article, found here, registers Mr Hockey’s support for the clean-up, although he ducks the issue as to whether he was ever directly involved in initiation. As he coyly puts it, “I’ve been initiated in the school of life”. Funny, but a simple “No” would have cleared that question up, wouldn’t it? Is this the real power of St John’s? You can no longer answer a simple yes/no question because you would either be complicit in vile and questionable acts, or you might just possibly offend your old school chums by saying “no” as if you disapproved of something? Excuse me for putting words in the Minister’s mouth but he seems to have left the answer hanging.

No wonder the Premier is looking at this because, right now, it appears that anyone who has been through St John’s may just not have the right level of objectivity to deal with it. Before you accuse me of overreacting on the basis of a single comment from Joe Hockey, I am looking at this in the light of the actions of those alumni who have already reduced the penalties against the 33 students from earlier and who continue to erode the “pro reform” approach that the new Rector is taking. I read an interesting comment from a former Johnsman who claimed that he left the college before third year so that he wouldn’t have to take part in inflicting the bastardisation.

Are we in any doubt the victimisation and intimidation are bad? That producing hierarchies out of fear form the imagination crippling extrinsic cages that we all know just don’t work for cognitive activities? That people who are abused tend to become abusers?

To be honest, it’s a little late for people to discover how bad this is, as Roslyn Arnold quickly realised when she left a poisonous culture and was told that she was overreacting. (Good to see that gaslighting is still going strong!) But a strong statement from the associated Church and Government are the first part of what is required to restore confidence that children and students are safe from harm when in our schools, Universities and associated institutions. The second part is real, lasting change to stamp out these activities and send the message that the people who do these things are not guardians of tradition or, in any way, to be respected.

Thugs are thugs. The sooner that the defenders of ritual humiliation and intimidation realise this, grow up and let it go, the sooner we can get back to education and building something better. I would apologise for lecturing on this subject except that, as Professor Arnold reminds us, part of being a good leader of any kind is speaking out, supporting those who oppose stupidity such as this, and taking a stand for something better. Be in no doubt, we need something better than this!

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