Phil Cleary: sister’s death led to drive for justice

White Ribbon ambassador and campaigner Phil Cleary.

White Ribbon ambassador and campaigner Phil Cleary.

PHIL Cleary came from a loving, working class family.

His mum and dad "got on famously" and there was no kind of conflict or abuse in the household.

Mr Cleary had been immune to the horrors of family violence ... until one day 26 years ago.

What happened to his family on the morning of August 26, 1987, had and still has a profound effect.

The former VFL footballer, commentator and politician was in Ballarat this week to address a community forum about family violence and justice issues.

During the forum, he spoke about the morning in 1987 which would change his life forever.

While teaching at an Avondale Heights secondary school, Mr Cleary discovered his younger sister Vicki had been stabbed by her ex-boyfriend .

Vicki, who had been separated for three months from her former partner of five years , died in hospital. She was 25.

"(Vicki's death) ripped my family to pieces," Mr Cleary said. "But it was the court case (of Vicki's ex-boyfriend) that was really crippling."

He said the use of the now abolished Provocation Law in the case against his sister's killer demonised her, essentially blaming her for the violent attack.

Vicki's character was traduced and her ex-boyfriend painted as a depressed alcoholic, who attacked her only after she swore at him.

"In unsworn evidence, he said he loved her, but that she was deceitful as she was with another man."

Vicki's killer was eventually found not guilty of murder, and served three years and 11 months in jail for the lesser charge of manslaughter.

His sister's death and subsequent court case spurred Mr Cleary into a life of campaigning about family violence and justice issues. "This campaign is not about my sister, it is for the 60 women a year who are killed by someone in their lives.

"Women are most at danger (of violence) from the men in their lives, rather than a stranger," he said.

Through his campaign, Mr Cleary hopes to address the issue of violence against women, which he describes as an epidemic.

He also hopes to change sentencing and parole laws .

"(Some) of these cases are still getting manslaughter verdicts and rape is still massively under-reported," he said. "In the past, many thought family violence was a private matter, but really it should be made a public matter."

He believes initiatives like White Ribbon are making it easier for people to report family violence incidents.

"As a community, we are now in a better place than 25 years ago. Our court rooms are under more scrutiny, there is public commentary about the issue and public awareness has been heightened ... people are talking about it.

"The White Ribbon campaign has highlighted the issue and gets people to ask questions and encourages women to report it. People should no longer be ashamed. It is no longer a private matter."

While he said the justice system, in particular the parole board, had let women down in the past, Mr Cleary stressed family violence was not simply a law and order campaign.

"Everywhere where men are, we should be prompting them to take responsibility. Fathers should be talking to their sons.

"Every father should be thinking about the message they are sending to their boys. They need to be having the discussion."

The Courier, with the support of the White Ribbon Foundation and local welfare and community organisations, is running the It's Up To Us campaign to highlight family violence in the region.

To tell your story, make a pledge to say no to violence against women or read more stories about the issue, visit our special page, It's Up To Us

kim.quinlan@fairfaxmedia.com.au