But even if they believed him, they would still be out for retribution, not rehabilitation

“Child killer Jon Venables,” reported the Mirror a few days ago, “has turned to religion – and claims God will forgive him for his crimes. Prison sources said he had asked for a Roman Catholic priest to visit him in his cell and spent three hours talking to him. Since then he has made a crucifix out of string and has been given a set of plastic rosary beads”.

Prison officers are sceptical. “It’s a well-trodden path for sick killers like Venables to find God,” said a prison source. “They think that whatever they did in the past will be forgotten because they have suddenly become religious.”

Well, I rather doubt that. Of course everyone understands the revulsion at Venables’ crimes. I have good reason to remember the original atrocity: I was a working journalist at the time; indeed, I wrote a lengthy leading article about the case for The Sunday Times. What could such a thing mean, everyone asked: what did it tell us about the state of society?

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The CCTV footage of the toddler James Bulger, his hand trustingly in the hands of his killers as they led him to his death, has haunted everyone who saw it ever since. There was at the time, I remember, considerable speculation about what it was in the young murderers’ family backgrounds that might explain at least partly what they had done.

But nobody could come up with any explanation of what had happened, except that there really was (this was a blinding discovery for some people) such a thing as absolute evil,  “motiveless malignity” (A C Bradley’s explanation of Iago) of which even 10-year-old children could be the agents. And to it there could only be one response: public vengeance and the destruction of the malefactors.

The online response of Mirror readers to the story about Venables “getting religion” was predictable. “Bring back the death penalty,” wrote one; “Perhaps the best thing is to despatch Venables to God as soon as possible so that he can meet his maker”, added another; and “hes found god pitty he carnt join him low life scum he wont go to heaven anyway he will go to hell” wrote a third.

Well, I hope he goes to heaven. Fr Ray Blake of St Mary Magdalen, Brighton, attracted some public anger when he said in his blog that he felt “immensely sorry for Venables – as well as Jamie Bulger and his poor mother”. Well, no doubt so shall I, when I say that I do, too; and add to that that I see nothing in the slightest  “strange” in the fact that, as one sceptical prison officer put it, “he has never mentioned religion before and has only started talking about the Bible since he was jailed for the child porn offences a couple of weeks ago”.

Returning to jail is just the kind of shock it sometimes takes to induce the beginnings of the kind of self-examination which, thank God, so often leads to the “turning again” which changes lives. And if it is really true that, as the Mirror reports, prison officers are simply “disgusted”, and think that finding God “is an act on Venables’ part, and is some sort of bid to make his life in prison easier”, I can only say that it is no wonder that there is so little rehabilitation going on in our prisons. 

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