Wednesday, 7 November 2012

On a 'catholic' college: how could it end up like this?

A number of readers have asked me to comment on the bizarre story of St John's College in Sydney.

I have to say I think this is one that pretty much speaks for itself, but as it does keep getting more and more bizarre, here goes.  This peculiar story has been bubbling away all this year in Sydney over one of Sydney University's (so-called) Catholic residences, St John's College.

The latest installment is that Cardinal Pell has stepped in to prevent the rector of the College being sacked for attempting to restore order in the place, by getting all of the priest members of the College's Council (and there were six of them) to resign.  Under the College's constitution, this means it cannot make any decisions.

A fairly drastic, and unsatisfactory solution you would have to say! 

Particularly when the Cardinal has had to ask the Premier of New South Wales to step in to reform the legislation that underpins the College's operation in order to achieve a real resolution of the problem.

How did it come to this?

The short version is that, according to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, the student population of the college seem to think they are living in some nineteenth century English boarding school where second and third year students can terrorize 'freshers' through vile initiation rituals and enforcement of other petty rules and practices.

Things came to a head earlier in the year when a young woman nearly died after being allegedly forced to drink a vile concoction that included things she was severely allergic to by a group of thirty male louts as part of an 'initiation ritual'.

Attempts to discipline the group were overruled by a cabal of governing Council members (some did resign in protest.  But most were reportedly more concerned about the future careers of the guilty students than about the safety of first year students); alumni (who have sought to defend the 'traditions' of the college against attempts to reform it); and the parents of the guilty, who took legal action to prevent their children being required to do community service and being barred from being office holders in the college.

Then this week it was revealed that not only had those involved escaped punishment, but several of them had been elected onto next year's internal House Committee that runs the college on a day-to-day basis.  Meanwhile, the college has allegedly descended into anarchy.


It is hard to understand how this situation could have been allowed to continue, particularly when the governing council of the college includes six priests!

But the instinct to cover-up and even lie if necessary - whether in relation to child abuse, jockey's betting against themselves in horse races, doping in sport, or the sleazy politics of New South Wales being revealed by current corruption hearings - seems to be alive and well.

Indeed, the ABC's Lateline ran a story on the college featuring an interview with a student who stated that she was a freshman at the college and the claims being made were all untrue.  Now it has been revealed  that she was actually a third year student, and a member of the College's 'House Committee'...

There would appear to be nothing 'Catholic' whatsoever about this college.  But then, that's true of most of our so-called Catholic institutions which have long since lost any genuine claim to the title.

A failure of leadership?

At the recent Synod on the New Evangelization, Cardinal Pell lamented the reluctance of bishops to speak up on issues of morality perhaps out of fear of the message being rejected and the political consequence thereof.

Well, he surely knows of what he speaks.  This, after all, a diocese where 'Acceptance Masses' promoting the homosexual lifestyle have been allowed to continue, and more than a few priests continue to promote erroneous opinions over at places like acatholica and The Swag.

The Cardinal is, under the Act of the NSW Parliament that governs St John's its 'Visitor', an office which, on the face of it, has wide powers at law.

It is truly breathtaking that this particular situation has been allowed to continue and he has only stepped in to act when the story hit the media once again.

The Church in Australia is doomed unless our leaders put their own words into action.


For those who wish to read or watch the various articles and reports on which I am relying for this piece, here is a partial list:

But there are a string of others  - just google Sydney Morning Herald St John's.

And for those interested in the power of a 'Visitor', a few articles of interest:
  • a review article from the Canterbury Law Review, 1982;
  • a University of Melbourne Law Review article by Patty Kamvounias and Sally Varnaham, 2010 (it notes that the power of the University Visitor was rendered largely ceremonial in NSW in 1994, but the legislation involved did not amend the College's Act so far as I can find).


R J said...

My late father, after decades of academic employment, used to say that the central problem with Australian campuses was the simple fact that most students there should not have been (on either intellectual or moral grounds) at a university at all. This horrid business with St John's would appear to confirm his thesis.

It isn't an exclusively Catholic college problem either. In the late 1990s similar, if less immediately revolting, antics at a Protestant residential college within Sydney University (namely Wesley), made it into the newspapers.

Cardinal Gilroy - the last Australian prelate capable of consistent and unmistakable leadership - had a healthy distrust of encouraging St John's in the first place. It increasingly looks as if the much-derided Cardinal was justified.

Don Richardson said...

I cannot let your characterisation of the situation at St john's College, and the imputations you make about the clerical Fellows, of which I was one until yesterday, and the Cardinal's motives, go unchallenged.

I am sad that you found it necessary to mislead your readers by making erroneous statements about "Overruling" by "cabals", and disappointed that you would consider yourself the arbiter of the College's Catholicity. If you don't really understand the circumstances at St John's - and it is apparent from your blog post that you do not - then you would be well advised to refrain from making comments which, at best, have the appearance of detraction and at worst might be construed as calumnious.

Rev. Donald Richardson
Holy Cross Parish, Woollahra NSW

Antonia Romanesca said...

Thanks Kate: excellent summary of the current Lanes of Limerick shebang, currently going down, over in Sydney.

Kate Edwards said...

Dear Rev Richardson,

I'm merely going on the reports of the case as reported in the media. If you believe the reality is different, please feel free to set out what you regard as the facts.

But the media reports are clear and haven't, as far as I can find, been refuted by any official statements.

Indeed, Cardinal Pell's statement that he has lost confidence in the Council's capacity to reform life at the college and consequent call for the clerical members to resign seems to suggest that the media reports have a substantial basis.

As for the role of the Cardinal in all of this, I find myself deeply puzzled by the media statement he has put out. He states that the college is not under the control of the Archbishop and his powers as visitor are very limited. I'd be interested to see the legal advice that is based on, because in fact the Act seems written so as to give the Visitor the traditional powers of a Visitor to resolve disputes, which are very broad indeed.

Of course the whole Act, with the requirement for six priests to be members of the governing board and for a cleric to be present in order for decisions to be made seems archaic to say the least, so the call for legislative reform is timely.

As for the catholicity of the college, the Cardinal, the Vice-Chancellor of the University and the Premier of the State have all expressed their concern at the damage this scandal is doing. Interesting that one of the priests involved doesn't seem to see it that way.

Don Richardson said...

I am not sure how you reach the conclusion, on the basis of my comment, that I am not concerned with the damage this scandal is doing.

Joshua said...

I recall that years ago, when there was a conference of Catholic university students that met and stayed at the College (out of term time), I heard bad things about the character of St John's men, of how hazing rituals were barbaric, how the place had a low moral tone, and how nothing much could be done to improve matters because a self-perpetuating elite held a veto.

I also recall being told that the number of students at the College who attended the Sunday Mass held in the College chapel was very small. In other words, the place had a bad name as Catholic in name only, but instead afflicted with a nasty coterie living out an outdated and always reprehensible pseudoculture of boorishness and foul play.

The sort of nonsense now publically reported - bullying, harassment and worse - needs to be stamped on most vigorously, the ringleaders expelled, and so forth, not to the exclusion of criminal charges against such brutes.

Fr Don, I know you and respect you: I am sure you agree with the Cardinal and Premier (as your actions in selflessly resigning at the former's behest testify) that the situation at the College requires root-and-branch reform, so as to purge out all the filth and restore the place to what it ought be.

Catherine said...

The only way I can see to change the whole ethos of the College in a positive direction is to bring in a community of vowed religious to live at the College. A long term core of holiness is needed as an antidote to the students who stay for 5 years and more, and who currently set the tone for the rest of the College. In times past the Dominicans undertook a ministry like this. A core of around 10 religious of the same order, and each worthy of the name in morals, prayer and theology, who would wear their habit with pride and set good example, be seen praying together in chapel and individually, and who would undertake to intercede for each and every College resident each and every day, and be available to help tutor subjects and available as people to confide in and ask moral and spiritual questions of - that would make a profound difference. Would anything else work as well?

Victoria said...

"bring in a community of vowed religious to live at the College...A core of around 10 religious "

Would it be possible to find 19 Faithful relisious in Australia today?

R J said...

Victoria asks: "Would it be possible to find 19 faithful religious in Australia today?"

Never mind members of Australian religious orders, I increasingly think that I'd settle for 19 faithful Catholics in Australia today, full-stop.