What Redemption For a Child Killer?

In November 1993, Gitta Sereny, the distinguished biographer of Albert Speer, wrote in a British Sunday newspaper that the killers of two-year old Jamie Bulger, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were still children and therefore had a chance of one day being rehabilitated back into society. Comparing their prospects to the successful rehabilitation of child killer Mary Bell - the subject of another of Sereny's books - she wrote, "We must, and we can hope that they too, in the quiet of their new lives, will find the courage to confront themselves, and the truth."

We do not know exactly what rehabilitation Jon Venables received but it certainly seemed adequate enough for both him and Robert Thompson to be deemed responsible adults when in 2001 they were released from prison. Now, however, having broken the conditions of his license, those who said Venables should never be free, must surely feel vindicated. This weekend the voices from Merseyside, where this appalling killing took place, have been characteristically vengeful, with many describing Venables as "pure evil". One woman summed up the mood:

'I only hope he gets the same done to him as he did to that little boy'.

Why do such sentiments sit so uncomfortably with me? It's not only that as the founder of The Forgiveness Project, I do not believe revenge makes anyone feel any better, but also it seems to me that the desire to mete out equal injury to those who have harmed others means we become a little like them ourselves. I prefer to believe in redemption even if redemption through psychology seems to have failed here.

It is not easy to talk of redemption in connection to a man who has caused such suffering- and who, it appears, has not changed all that much. Yet the moral certainty of those who call for him to fry seems to forgo all responsibility for 'the other'. If we deny Jon Venables' humanness we become less human ourselves in the process.

According to Venables' former lawyer, Laurence Lee, when the ten year old did finally admit in the police station that he'd murdered Jamie Bulger back in February 1993, the first thing he said was "please tell his mum I'm sorry". Gitta Sereny wrote of the trial, 'I looked at Jon Venables and all I saw was a boy in emotional chaos whose cries for help had been ignored for years. .....His sobs - we all heard them - were real, as were his glances every day at his parents, seeking reassurance." In Robert Thompson, Sereny saw a child very similar to the one she had seen in Mary Bell over 20 years earlier:

'he too "laughed" when it all happened; he too, joined the mourners who left flowers for Jamie....and he too, except in those terrible last minutes of the trial, had only a blank face to present to all those who watched him. He looked to me like a child who cannot love - who no longer dares to love.'

We may never know what led Jon Venables to kill Jamie Bulger, nor do we yet know the truth of allegations in some newspapers that he has been recalled on suspicion of offences related to images of child abuse. But for anyone looking for answers as to why someone like Venables may have reoffended, it will come down to a combination of factors, not least that growing up in an institution further alienated and brutalized him..

Laurence Lee said on BBC radio on 6th March that he'd never believed it was right to identify the boys, not so much for their sake but for the sake of their parents. Lee declared that he'd always seen the case as a festering boil:

'I'm not trying to support them in any way or back up their interests but I made a comment to a Sunday Newspaper that they may be at liberty but they'll never be free, and that has I think come home to roost with Jon Venables' recall, because trying to invent a lie over what you did for the whole of your youth is impossible and unless you're mentally extremely strong that will catch up with him'.

This appears to be true as press reports now reveal that Venables' mental state has crumbled and he may have confessed his real identity to a number of strangers. Having worked in several UK prisons, including a Vulnerable Prisoners Unit (vulnerable meaning anyone who is likely to be attacked by other prisoners, and therefore mainly sex offenders) it's hard to imagine how, in an institution where inmates consider pedophiles and child killers the lowest of the low, Venables could survive should his true identity be known. I hope his anonymity remains intact for his sake, for humanity's sake, and not least because the popular notion that retribution helps the victim, is a delusion.