<em>Illustration: Simon Letch</em>

Illustration: Simon Letch

There we were circa 1966 - four freshers at St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, jammed in a wardrobe. A host of senior students sat around the room drinking lager as each of the freshers assumed the various functions of a cuckoo clock.

There was Fresher Tick in the top left hand corner of the cupboard. Fresher Tock was top right. Fresher Cuck bottom left and Fresher Koo bottom right.

I believe I was Fresher Cuck. The idea was that the doors of the wardrobe were to whirr into action opening and closing in sequence to the rhythmic sounds of a Swiss clock. Tick, tock, cuck, koo. Tick, tock, cuck, koo. On and on it went, while the fortified seniors hurled instructions to keep in time.

Maybe it was harmless enough fresher ritual and didn't scar anyone too deeply, although it has to be said that Fresher Tick did become a proctologist. Other antics involved being deposited penniless in nothing but one's underpants in Kings Cross and told to find a way back to college without being arrested or molested.

Given the dress code of the rest of the population of Kings Cross, this wasn't too daunting an exercise.

Somewhere there is a old photo of a latter-day Court of Appeal judge in his smalls trying to hail a taxi from Darlinghurst Road to Carillon Avenue.

The humiliations were obvious enough.

We were adorned with our names on great cardboard signs around our necks, there was ritual room trashing and toilet cleaning duties. Yet, since most of our time was spent in an alcoholic coma, it's difficult to remember all the fine details.

I do recall an older Jewish law student had a very hard time of it because he refused to be bullied as a fresher. His family had been through the Holocaust, so this stuff was nothing compared to the victimisation and death on an industrial scale of his family.

The rest of us just went along with it, forlornly believing it served a higher purpose in our masculine development. And, like most young people, we were desperate to fit into the prevailing ''culture''.

The primitive notion was that ritualised humiliations would give new boys a sense of belonging. Traditions, no matter how absurd, were the bonding glue that kept us all together.

In the 1980s a young woman complained that she had been raped by a St Andrew's boy. The story is they were drinking at the Marlborough Hotel in Newtown and that he dragged her down Missenden Road, into the grounds of the college and up into a room.

A famous Sydney silk acted for the accused, the son of a prominent solicitor. The alleged victim was the daughter of a Supreme Court judge. The accused was acquitted as he was quite a small man and it could not be convincingly demonstrated that he ''dragged'' a larger woman down a busy road for about 400 metres.

What struck the defence lawyers was that a number of St Andrew's students, from whom they sought information, said that dragging women into rooms against their will, ''happened all the time''.

Peter Cameron later became the principal of St Andrew's and he was so stunned by what he found that he wrote a book called Finishing School for Blokes - College Life Exposed, which was published in 1997. Here's his description of a dinner celebrating a sporting triumph:

''Throughout the meal there is continual movement. Servers scurry backwards and forwards carrying buckets of foaming ale. There was a constant traffic of students departing and returning to relieve themselves or to vomit. But gradually the journey downstairs becomes too daunting and they make use of the windows instead, using the long sleeves of their academic gowns to wipe their mouths afterwards. For one or two at the team table the prospect of getting even as far as the windows is too much and they vomit where they sit, their heads between their knees. No one pays any attention. When they have finished they replenish their glasses.''

Needless to say, Cameron was hounded out of the place.

Four years later, when the college coffers were drying up, women were admitted as students, and the place gradually became civilised. I went back for a dinner a few years ago, and no one vomited.

Then there's the Catholic outpost, St John's, down the road, where the process of civilisation has been slower. Men degrading other men is one thing, but it's quite another when they insist that young women swallow toxic cocktails.

Cardinal George Pell has withdrawn the priests as fellows of St John's, yet the lawyers and captains of industry remain on the council.

Some are reported to be adamant that these fine traditions continue. It's important the humiliations they endured as students should be passed onto the next generation.

So we come to the culture of the cover-up. These rituals have been allowed to flourish behind closed doors. When they do seep into the public domain there is a chorus of complaint that something really should be done.

St Paul's College, at the height of the 2009 students' pro-rape, anti-consent postings on Facebook, called in a PR firm to hose down the crisis.

The last we heard was the the college warden had condemned this behaviour while the vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, viewed it with the ''utmost seriousness''.

Trinity Grammar School called in flack merchant Anthony McClelland at the height of the boarding house dildo rape drama in early 2001. The school community was instructed to say nothing to the media and it was written off as an isolated incident. No apologies or regrets were issued.

Remember the allegations of sex-ual harassment levelled against the master of Ormond College at Melbourne University. Helen Garner wrote about it in The First Stone. The college council tried unsuccessfully to contain the story.

At St John's the main concern of some of the fellows was the reputation of the young men who had conducted the horrible initiation ceremonies. Not the women who were the victims of their actions.

None of the male students have been rusticated because that might damage their reputations. They should be free to go on to higher things where as leaders they can bring their ''values'' unimpeded into board rooms, the professions and politics.

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