The Implosion of St John’s College

A sad, and relatively unexpected, spectacle these past few days has been the implosion of my old college, St John’s College within the University of Sydney. It has been headline news in the Australian media, and even made it to the daily news brief from the American Catholic Culture website. The incisive Kate at Australia Incognita has discussed the scandal as well. As an alumnus of the college it is unpleasant enough. As a Benedictine there is an extra level of sadness, given that the college is the fruit of the monk/Archbishop Polding’s high aspirations for the Church in Australia, who saw it is providing leaders for both Church and state. His successor, another English Benedictine,  Roger Bede Vaughan, actually lived in the College during his too-short term as archbishop. The fine and imposing portrait of Polding in the college refectory formed an subconscious backdrop to my own budding vocation.

Portrait of Archbishop Polding OSB at St John’s College

The immediate history dates from an incident in March this year when a female freshman was hosptalized after being made to drink a disgusting concoction involving shampoo and alcohol, among other ingredients. She was made to do so as part of an initiation ritual. The Americans call these rituals ‘hazing’; in my day at the college the initiation rituals were called ‘fresherization’. Having read that the rector, Mr Michael Bongers, had identified 33 students involved in the incident in some way, and suspended them pending further punishment, it seemed the matter would fall from the media gaze. The college engaged a state judge to examine the matter, with the result that the rector excluded the ringleaders from standing for the college’s student governing body and ordered them all to do 20 hours of community service.

As startling as anything else in this imbroglio is that the students appealed this light punishment. Their parents engaged legal counsel on their behalf (it almost beggars belief), another judge was brought in and a sort of mock trial was held in the college, complete with legal representation for the parties involved. This new judge upheld the rector’s actions except that he held that the exclusion of the students from standing for house government the next year was unjust, being in effect an instance of double jeopardy. Given that many old-boy Fellows on the governing Council were actively championing the students’ cause, this striking down of one of the rector’s penalties seriously undermined his authority. The last few days have seen the outcome: widespread vandalism in the college, and open defiance of college authority to the point that the students elected the ringleaders of the May incident to the senior positions on the House Committee, the students’ governing body. A sofa has been burned outside the rector’s rooms; not quite an effigy, but tending in that direction. One college fellow, Professor Roslyn Arnold, resigned in disgust, as did the Honorary Dean, Fr Walter Fogarty. It has been rumoured that some Fellows will move imminently to remove the rector (but not the students!).

So against the backdrop of the media frenzy, the statutory Visitor of the college, Cardinal Pell, has intervened tersely and clearly. His Eminence has declared his lack of confidence in the College Council, and asked the remaining five clerical Fellows to resign from the Council, which they have done. This renders the Council unable to function legally. The Cardinal will also discuss with the state Premier the possibility of changing the legislation under which the college operates.

This is a good point at which to get some context. The college, like other colleges within the university, was founded by an act of the state parliament. Its full title gives a clue to its status vis à vis the university proper: The College of St John the Evangelist within the University of Sydney. The “within” is crucial. It is within the university, but not of the university. The university has no control over the colleges so incorporated. St John’s is governed by a Council of 18 Fellows who appoint a rector. The Fellows are elected by the alumni, and six of them must, by law, be Catholic priests. The court of appeal, as it were, is the Visitor of the college, who is always the Archbishop of Sydney. The University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest university, was intended as Oxbridge Down Under, with the exception that the university itself was to be secular. This was an attempt to avoid the religious sectarianism that marked Australian society in the 19th century. The Christian denominations were involved via the colleges they founded, which were established by acts of parliament to ensure their freedom from interference.

Kate, among others, has asked why has it taken this long for the Cardinal to act. To be fair, much less blame than is implied should laid at his feet. The Visitor has no active role in the life or governance of the college. He is called in as is needed. His powers are limited by the act of parliament establishing the college. His press release was not an official act of the Visitor per se, as far as I can tell, but an act of moral suasion, drawing a line in the sand and letting all know where he stands with regard to his future official actions as Visitor. He has made it impossible for the Council to move against the rector.

Yet a prior question is surely how has all this come to pass. 20 years there was certainly fresherization, as there was at the other colleges. It was occasionally crude, sometimes light-hearted (the “Newtown Run” involved the freshmen running naked back to the college from the neighbouring suburb of Newtown) and very adolescent. When I arrived in 1990 it was a remarkably tolerant place: clearly homosexual residents were not harassed, Asian students were accepted in what was an overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic environment, and a profoundly disabled student played a conspicuous part in the life of the college. The fresherization period was not very long, and I have no memory of anyone being forced physically to do anything. That said, one can never underestimate the power of peer pressure and the individual’s need to be accepted. Perhaps the greatest sin a resident could commit at St John’s was not to be involved in some way in the life of the college. This need not be by drinking or sport; singing in the College choir, membership of the debating team, or even just cheering the college team at sporting events, were all acceptable ways to participate.

The early 90s saw a reforming element introduced into the college. A new rector and his team sought to civilize the house by acting vigorously against the drinking culture, the mild yet tasteless sexism of many students, and especially the initiation rituals of fresherization. This was probably long overdue. The problem lay in their approach. For all their political correctness (and this very much informed their policies) they had little understanding  for or appreciation of where late adolescent males were “at” in this stage of life’s journey. They made a poor job of listening. They applied inverted commas too often to words that made the nervous or disgusted. They came across as puritans. They allowed their actions to be perceived as an attack on the traditions of the college, and this seriously undermined their project by antagonizing even the moderate, amenable residents. They alienated a majority of the college tutors, who should have been a major weapon in the reformers’ arsenal. They advocated introducing women, largely to help civilize the place, and this served further to inflame the situation. Recent events suggest that eventual introduction of female residents some years back has failed in this aim. What is galling is that immediately adjacent to St John’s was the Catholic college for women, Sancta Sophia, and an excellent modus vivendi existed between the two colleges. The girls, for one, had their neat, clean and calm sanctuary to retire to if the boys got on their nerves.

St John’s College seen from its oval.

For better or for worse, the young men of the college, traditionally coming from boarding schools, brought with them a familiarity with a relatively restrictive institutional regime, as well as a desire to enjoy their new found freedom from that regime. So they thought in institutional terms, and so in terms of tradition, while at the same time wanting to enjoy their recently-acquired freedom. This is a recognizable part of maturation and the emergence from adolescence into adulthood. There will be moral and social failures in this process. A college’s role should be to contain them and gradually to correct them. In large measure this process, wherever it takes place, must involve making the young take responsibility for their actions. This responsibility flows along two streams: taking the wrap for misdeeds, and also being positively involved in making decisions for the benefit oneself and also the group.

The events of the last few months have revealed that this process of acting responsibly, both the active and prudent exercise of power, and manning up to one’s misdeeds and atoning for them, is woefully lacking. The student body has become radicalized, and their behaviour is now one of entrenched reaction. In such an atmosphere reason will have little influence. Growth in mature responsibility as a goal has been totally lost. Instead of the young being coaxed into taking responsibility for their actions and for the common good they have now, it seems, adopted an attitude of self-righteously defiant libertinism. Grandstanding has been evident on more than one side. Perspective has been lost as the dynamics of cause celèbre have taken over.

Thus the scandal has become a weapon for the media to attack the Church, though the Church does not directly control the College; to attack the collegiate system as elitist, and elitism is a mortal sin according to Australian social dogma; and to stigmatize young males in general as all being potential anti-social louts.

Yet vital questions might not be addressed adequately at all. For example, how is it that things have been allowed to deteriorate so rapidly and calamitously? How many more actually bear responsibility, at least in part, for this toxic culture now prevailing? To what extent is the loss of the Catholic identity and ethos of the college a contributing factor? Has education yielded too often to cack-handed experiments in social engineering? And where does the welfare of the students figure in this?

What lies in store for the college? I have no inside information, but one probable outcome will be a revision of the legislation governing the college, and all the colleges no doubt. An act dating from 1857 is probably no longer totally adequate for a 21st-century tertiary college. In more immediate terms, I imagine that the entire Council will have to resign, and probably the rector too if a new broom is to have an effect. In fact all the most involved parties might have to relinquish any role from now on. The students who have acted criminally should probably go too. They have brought this on themselves. In the long term I suspect there will be a move to involve the university formally in the government of the college.

This is not without dangers from a Catholic point of view. The current legislation allows the college to be distinctively Catholic, and the potential this gives the college has been sinfully under-realized. In future, with the possibility of more secular control over the life of the college, the Catholic identity of the college could be further eroded and what potential it had much reduced. It is to be hoped that Cardinal Pell will push to ensure that an eminent and gifted rector is appointed, bolstered by the full support of those who appoint him or her; and also that a resident chaplain, with experience dealing with the young and a firm commitment to the Faith, will be also be appointed. It would be a fitting reform in this Year of Faith and the New Evangelization. For as the college motto, from Psalm 127, reminds us, “Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labour”.

10 thoughts on “The Implosion of St John’s College

  1. Yes this is certainly a sad situation, but one that has clearly been a long time coming. But on the power of the Cardinal to act, the legislation concerned is not in the least restrictive; rather it reflects the archaic, very broad powers of a traditional oxbridge ecclesiastical visitor. One can certainly understand the Cardinal’s reluctance to get involved in a matter of this kind, particularly given the strong views of various factions of old boys. But while I agree that those powers are no longer appropriate, they do, on the face of it, exist and come with a requisite duty to act.


    1. Hi Kate. Point taken, to a point… (!) In my haste to get the blog finished I was sloppy. What I was intending to say was that the Visitor is not envisaged as having much of an active role in practice beyond that of being the court of appeal. Certainly he participates little in the life of the college, and I do not remember the Visitor visiting at all in my time there. Rather than his being restricted,he is probably better being described as circumscribed, by convention as much as anything else. Thankfully, the students have unwittingly brought matters to a head, and on their own heads be it.



  2. 1. Women were admitted to STJC because the college was going broke as an all male Catholic college. It was a financial life saver but was I agree, opposed by many. Without women residents StJC would have gone bust.

    2. “The students who have acted criminally should PROBABLY go too”. Probably? The fact that you have any doubt whatsover that criminals who have assaulted and nearly caused the death of another [female and now ex student – interesting pattern here isn’t it – the harmed victim is gone from the college but those responsible for almost killing her are not only still there, but are popularly elected to positions and resisting the mildest of sanctions imposed by the Rector] student, entered and destroyed personal property of other residents who refuse to engage in sick rituals, leaving their faeces in shoes of residents they target for harassment. Probably go too? There is no probably about it. The fact that you quibble as you have on this issue means I have to question your motivation, perspective and moral reasoning.

    3. Groups of men running naked from StJC to Newtown and back an adolescent prank? No – let’s call it for what it is. It is a crime under the NSW Crimes Act. It’s called indecent exposure and should result in an arrest of all those involved and a criminal conviction. If witnessed by children, a conviction for indecent exposure should result in them being placed on the Child Sex Offenders list or at the very least, an offence if they ever try to work with anyone under the age of 18 without declaring this upfront. I suppose it never crossed your mind that I may be walking up Missenden Road on my own after dark to hear heavy breathing, feet pounding on pavement, and look around to find one of your naked freshers running full tilt at me. Drunk. Or that such an experience is one way men punish women for the temerity of being in the streets, alone? Indecent exposure like this especially en mass is a deliberate statement from young men who are raised to believe the law does not apply to them. If at any time they do this on University premises it constitutes sexual harassment under the University’s policy and therefore also a breach of civil laws as well. Failure of the University to take reasonable steps to stop it renders the University vicarious liable for the actions of these Johnsmen. By the way – all these laws and policies I have just identified were in place when you say you were at the college and was aware of this behaviour. Did you ever bother to pick up the phone, write or informing anyone about what you admit here you knew was happening? If not, all your talk about manning up and taking responsibility is a prettily crafted, wordy facade. It is also a prime example of the reasoning that has allowed other and even far more serious abuses to flourish. Guess though that you would say that is the media and women’s fault as well.


  3. Oh, and as for your wilfully false reminiscences about the women residents of Sancta being able to retreat to their calm, clean, safe from these unsavoury and criminal acts by Johnsmen and other college males – how about we actually hear from the women themselves. Instead of taking your bland assurances as to how protected they were?

    1. here is just one recent article from Ms Gardiner, a Sancta woman.

    She recalls being subjected to the singing of pro rape songs [yes means yes and no means yes] by your purportedly naughty Johnsmen, having mole and other sexually abusive words screamed at her and other Sancta women every time they passed. Her experience has not led to any problems being able to label the actions as criminal. In the past few days I read another Sancta former residents blog where she stated how terrifying it was for the naked St Johnsmen to come rampaging through inside her college and how she had to run and hide in the toilets with her feet up on the seat. She felt wonderfully safe from your naked criminals.

    2. And here are fond recollections from a 2001 St Johns female resident – she really enjoyed the faees left in shoes, amongst other things.

    3. As for being educated, there is clear evidence that bullied and hazed students more likely to drop out so apart from reporting crimes and upholding civil law and contemporary policies against harassment, there is a strong education reason to exercise some leadership when you see or hear of such practices – unless of course you are happy to have these students as collateral damage sacrificed to continue the activities you seem to look so fondly on and downplay


  4. I am going to ignore the slur that my reminiscences are “willfully false”, other than to ask, how on earth would you know? My reminiscences are what they are.

    Your detailed and extensive comments, and their tone, suggest you have more than a passing interest in the debacle at St John’s. I can only wonder what it is.

    If you had not noticed, my time there was 20 years ago, and part of my point was how much worse things had become since then. A reflection from 2001 only confirms my point. The moll call (not mole) I heard only a few times, it was ridiculous, immature and pathetic, but if there were female students who were hurt by it I did not see it. This does not excuse it at all, but my point is I never saw anyone traumatized by it. In fact the few occasions I was around when it was shouted, the girl(s) usually made an appropriate gesture of defiance. All the Sancta girls I mixed with (and I admit that was nowhere near all of them) were fond of Johns and did not take adolescent male chest-thumping seriously. And most of the boys knew it too. Maybe that was not the message they should have received.

    In my day the prospect of female students was not promoted as a financial salve, but purely on social reforming grounds. If their introduction was purely on financial grounds, then it is doubly a mistake. To be honest I would have wondered why any girl would want to live in a college full of boys generally more interested in sport and drinking, and whose living spaces were far from clean and tidy. That was the perspective of my circle in the early 1990s. Obviously my circle was not representative of the whole college.

    I used the word “probably” regarding the students for two reasons. The first is that their punishment had been other than expulsion. Given that a judge had already determined that one punishment the rector imposed counted as “double jeopardy”, my thinking was that to expel them now would be likewise a case of being punished twice for the same offence. In other words, it had been decided that expulsion would not be the punishment, rightly or wrongly. I am not into knee-jerk reactions on the basis of media storms. But if the College is to move on and clean itself up their continued presence would not help, only hinder. Moreover I have not yet seen evidence that all 33 students alleged to have been involved are all equally guilty. I imagine there was normal crew of onlookers maintaining a timid silence on the face of the disgusting event.

    Perhaps it is another example of sloppy expression on my part. But in the back of my mind was the idea that a criminal act can only be determined as such by a court of law, not by a bevy of accusers whose evidence is not tested. Obviously someone committed an appalling act, and to the degree the girl was coerced (as it seems, at least psychologically, she was) the act was criminal. But barring an admission by the culprits (and my point also was that these boys should own up to their actions and take the punishment) or a criminal trial, it would be easy to cast the expulsion of all 33 students as unjust. Even so, and this was my thinking, they should still go, despite the complications.

    Lastly, your comments on the nude run might be true from your perspective. However I cannot accept that the sight of a dozen young men running, usually at night, from the then relatively childless suburb of Newtown, would traumatize children. And that it could be possible to put someone who runs nude as a prank through the streets on the Sex Offenders’ Register is a sign of a loss of perspective. It is not the same as flashing a targeted individual. In that basis streakers at sporting events should also be put on the Register. Who was ever traumatized by a streaker? The nude run was juvenile, and ridiculous, and as I remember from time working in police communications, an annoyance and waste of time to police. And I do not condone it. But I am not going to get worked up over it.

    The point to get worked up over is the greater issue of the toxicity of the culture at St John’s. These events are a whole new level beyond the juvenile rebellion and gender disrespect of the early 1990s. Neither is defensible, but the current state of the college is truly disastrous for all involved.



    1. Coco’s irrational reaction does nothing to justify the proposition that women are NOT inherently half-witted, does it? Straw-man upon straw-man (as you’ve pointed out, Dom Hugh) and stupidity upon stupidity …


      1. Certainly an excess of emotive rhetoric will not be helpful. This sad situation has a history from which we must learn the best way to restore order to John’s, to ensure that it is a positive environment to live and study, and to promote its role in the Church’s mission.



  5. I agree with Coco on everything except the Sex Offender register for nudist runs remark. The fact you did not upbraid +Wolsey for his sexist remarks (women ‘half-witted’?, stupidity on stupidity?) Fr Hugh, reinforces what Coco said.

    It is easy to remember your college roomies pranks fondly when they may not have been targeted at you. If we want Catholic (and all) women to grow up respected and safe, we must tackle that difficult transition from teenage high jinks to adulthood which coincides with the freedoms at university. Removing the rector would be a grave mistake when he upholds the rule – removing the troublemakers is necessary, not just probably required!

    The local Bishop must take a more active management role in all institutions with the ‘catholic’ name, or ensure they remove such a name.


    1. I did not take issue with Wolves comment because I look him to be making a valid point but tongue in cheek.

      In a previous comment I explained why I said “probably”. In fact I am convinced the students should go. There will be no resolution till they do, and their parents will have to accept that the boys have reached the age of full responsibility for their actions, no matter the damage to their CVs.

      The independent status of the colleges is both a strength and a weakness. I suspect this degree of independence is about to be much reduced.



  6. Keep looking the other way Father Hugh, not seeing anything, not noticing any distressed women and loved the slyest of digs when you questioned the motivation of women who would want to live with males in a previously all male college. Of course they must have a question mark over them if they want to live there any anyone reading this would understand absolutely what you are getting at. As for the nude runs you seem to think were such sport, in 2003 when the Archbishop attended Sancta for it formal dinner, he was not at all happy with the nude run through, yet Daintree the Rector at St Johns – who you pilloried for political correctness and shock horror introducing women to the college – just like you boast about – also thought it unproblematic.

    An as for your arch “wondering” ie., querying why I have any interest in St Johns College hazing and misogynistic culture – it is because men like you who delude themselves they are decent people yet continually look the other way and not see or minimise crimes and abuse of women, require others to tell you how appalling your views have become. I am stepping up to the mark and taking you on about your defence of the indefensible – condoning criminal and civil breaches by privileged males.
    The only greater toxicity at St Johns now as opposed to when you were there is they have Rector Bongers now who has been attempting to punish the miscreants, and the over indulged old boys from your years on Council and the parents of these ferals have banded together to thwart Bongers over relatively mild sanctions, given the seriousness of the incidents.
    Double jeopardy being a problem? You have to be kidding. Anyone with a child knows full well that if they burn sofas on the lawn, poo in shoes “for fun”, engage in criminal indecent exposure to non-consenting others or minors, and almost kill another with a toxic cock tail, cumulative sanctions are appropriate. How many parents may eg., remove a favourite object from a miscreant room, dock pocket money and ground a child for a specified time? Any talk about double or triple jeopardy here?
    The truth is the sanctions Bongers imposed on these residents was incredibly mild. Yet they and their legally connected parents decided to appeal, bring in the barristers and judges and make a hullabulloo about it. By legalising the college disciplinary and appeals process, and scoring petty points, they “won” in that the ban on standing for student elections was overturned and they got out of doing 20 hours of community service. This “win” over Bongers then empowered these students even more. Their aim without a doubt was to ensure there was such mayhem in the college that it would reflect on Bongers and the justify their alliance with the old boys on Council to sack Bongers. That was certainly the plan.
    Pell however stepped in and kicked the jurisdictional legs out from under the old boys and this feral mob.
    What empowered these Johnsmen to greater heights of mischief and harassment was wining the double jeopardy argument you also seem excessively fond of. Double jeopardy is a criminal law punishment concept and applying it to a situation where no one has been made criminally accountable is laughable. Any parent with a child would immediately grasp that for incidents of ill discipline and damage, multiple punishments are often justified.
    Looking back on the cast of characters who have devoted so much time and effort to defending these Lord of The Flies residents – I wonder whether they think appealing those relatively mild sanctions and “winning” was worth it. I see you are still defending the diminution of their original punishment on the same grounds. Even the conservative Fin Review had an article in which employers were asked if they would employ those involved in this incident and/or now harboured additional concerns about hiring Johnsmen. The employers said yes.
    This is the real world with real world consequences. You say the students should go and I say – behave and speak consistently with that. Because your initial post was spilling over with a rich vein of excuses when there are none.


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