WHITE RIBBON DAY
Over the past days the media has been awash with public figures swearing to honour the White Ribbon Oath and pledge never to be silent about violence against women. So why the deafening silence regarding the death of one such woman, Susie Wild? The diminutive Susie was murdered by her partner of 18 years, Anthony Sherna, who this month was found not guilty of murder. Sherna told police he only strangled Susie with the cord he’d taken from a dressing gown after she began abusing him and woke up the dog.
I spent some time in the court listening to the allegations about how Susie had habitually dominated and abused Sherna. All the memories of my family’s experience twenty years ago came flooding back. Among those memories was the moment on 26 August 1987 when the doctor at the Melbourne Hospital told my mother her daughter was dead. ‘I’m sorry Mrs Cleary we couldn’t stop the bleeding’. It was as simple as that. My sister Vicki was an engaging, affectionate and loving girl and only 25 years of age when her former boyfriend, Peter Keogh, a man with a violent history, ambushed her, armed with a knife, outside the kindergarten where she worked.
If the murder was horrific, the trial was infuriating and humiliating. Like so many ‘wife killers’ Keogh was turned into a victim by psychiatrists called by the defence, granted a defence of provocation and found guilty only of manslaughter. It was said that he was an alcoholic depressive and that my sister’s verbal rebuttal when he confronted her might have provoked him to draw the knife from his homemade scabbard and stab her relentlessly to death. Despite his criminal record Keogh was given a minimum three years and eleven months in gaol by Justice George Hampel.
Anthony Sherna didn’t have Keogh’s dark history and there was no trail of misogyny but he struck with the same venom and hatred as Keogh. So how could a jury in a civilised society find him not guilty of murder when, unlike Keogh, he couldn’t use the now defunct defence of provocation? What was the jury thinking and why was the old-fashioned and dangerous idea about Sherna being ‘hen-pecked’ allowed to run almost unchallenged? Didn’t he grab the cord with the intention of deliberately killing her? If only it was as simple as that. Sadly, whenever a man kills his partner or ex-partner she is always to blame. There just seems to be no legal impediment to what the prosecutor in the Sherna case described as ‘the blackening’ of the dead woman’s character. From start to finish this was a case in which a casual observer might have asked whether it was the killer or the dead woman who was actually on trial.
If as White Ribbon chairman Andrew O’Keefe correctly points out (Age Wednesday 25 November) violence is a product of the belief that men have greater rights in relationships than women we must condemn the imbalance of rights that continues to afflict our courts. Do we think the meaning of newspaper headlines about a ‘hen-pecked’ man being found not guilty of murder doesn’t seep into the collective male consciousness? Do we think there is no connection between anti-female headlines and players at the Springvale Districts Football Club wanting to wear black armbands earlier this year for a sponsor who had committed suicide after shooting dead his estranged partner?
From the courts to the football culture’s incessant belittling of women there’s no shortage of backward thinking. Violence against women has only survived because the community, at all levels, has been complicit in allowing such backward thinking to survive. Since the murder of my sister I’ve heard a stream of stories from women about the violent man in their life. Quite frankly, I’m sick of people, whether in the courts or on the street, who make excuses for the violence or refuse to take a stand against it. How many complaints from women will it take for the usual blokey suspects to realise they don’t need to belittle women to be a real bloke? What a seminal moment it would have been had someone at Carlton told Brendan Fevola publicly his Brownlow antics bore the hallmarks of a bloke whose view of women needed some reworking.
We’ve come a long way since Justice Hampel gave Peter Keogh less than four years in gaol for his murderous attack on my sister and such sentences were the rule rather than the exception. But as the Sherna case reveals, white ribbons ambassadors will need plenty of steel if they’re to bring an end to the scourge of violence against women.