Merseyside Police photo via YouTube
There has been speculation lately that the British government is looking for a destination abroad for a notorious child-murderer in order to maintain his anonymity, protect his life, and perhaps save the taxpayer some money. But it’s a big ask. New Zealand’s Prime Minister told the media her message would be, “Don’t bother” applying here. Canadian officials have said roughly the same. Australia?
Jon Venables is a man in his mid-thirties with an extraordinary criminal past, and a criminal present that offers little hope for his future rehabilitation. In 1993, at the age of 10, he and his schoolmate Robert Thompson, also 10, lured two-year-old James Bulger away from his mother in a shopping mall, took him a couple of miles away, then battered him to death and left him by a railway line to make the killing look like an accident.
Although there are cases of parents and other adults abusing young children to the point where they die, the deliberate and gruesome killing of James Bulger by young boys was unprecedented. The judge at their trial (in an adult court) called it a crime of “unparalleled evil and barbarity” and allowed the boys' names to be published.
Imprisoned in separate youth institutions, they were released at the age of 18 under close supervision, with new identities and granted lifelong anonymity. They had completed high school studies and Jon Venables’ minders, at least, considered that he posed only a trivial risk to the community.
Today, however, Venables is serving a 40-month sentence (starting in February 2018) for making indecent images of children on his computer and having a “sickening” paedophile manual in his possession. And it is not the first time; he was recalled to prison in 2010 for possession of child pornography. He has said that he has “urges” in this direction that he cannot resist.
Socially isolated and unable to hold down a job, he has also been caught with hard drugs. An obsessive tendency observed during his confinement as a teenager (he would play on Nintendo non-stop when not obliged to do something else) and his long-term anxiety about being unmasked and killed in revenge, have taken his life on a downhill path and made him more of an outcast than ever.
An application early this year by James’ father and uncle to have Venables’ anonymity order at least partly overturned was refused by the head of the UK family court on the ground that it would be a death sentence for him. The government now appears to want him out of the country — ostensibly because of the cost of defending such suits, but perhaps also because of the political costs of shielding a man who is known to be addicted to child pornography and apparently trading in it.
For the same reason, one would think, other governments will be unwilling to accept Venables, who is unlikely to have been cured, or set on a new track, in prison. He would need psychotherapy and other help of a calibre that he seems to have lacked in the past.
Journalist David James Smith, who was commissioned to write a book on the case (The Sleep of Reason, 2010) and followed it from the beginning, was convinced that Venables’ minders and those they reported to failed to follow up a clue to his motivation in the killing of James Bulger: the little boy’s body was found without his trousers and underpants. There was also speculation at the time that Jon had been exposed to “video nasties”, including violence and porn, at home.
Smith also pointed out that “it is … highly likely, if not axiomatic” that Venables’ interest in child sexuality as revealed in 2010 “came about as a result of some abuse or other disturbing incident, or incidents” that he may have suffered in his past. “Had he kept a secret hidden through all of the years of his detention and rehabilitation?”
If the answer to that question is yes, the further question of how to help Jon Venables and protect society remains as challenging today as it did 26 years ago, and those who maintain that he should spend the rest of his life locked up (“rot in jail” is the common term) seem to have a point.
The alternative is something very demanding on today’s society, whether in the UK or New Zealand or anywhere else: forgiveness, and a new, well-founded effort to rehabilitate a man who is still young and who, before he killed another child, may have been robbed of his own childhood.
There has always been in some quarters a certain sympathy for the boy killers, regular school truants who clearly lacked something very important at home, and who were treated like adult criminals at their trial and sentencing. There is room for forgiveness here, given recognition that if 10-year-olds do something monstrous and evil, it’s because they have heard and seen monstrous and evil things, even if they were “only” made up.
But when a docudrama by Vincent Lambe about the police interviews with the boys and their parents was nominated for an Oscar early this year, 180,000 people signed a petition supporting James’ mother, Denise Fergus, in calling for the nomination to be withdrawn. That Lambe did not consult her or her former husband, Ralph Bulger, about the film did not help his effort to understand James’ killers. And of course, the cruel death of her little son is an extremely difficult thing to understand and forgive.
It is true that we cannot just excuse crimes, even those by young people, and blame everything on the social environment or on history; there must be penalties that restore a sense of justice, and serious efforts at rehabilitation aimed at preventing further offending. But then, if not before, we have to forgive, because resentment, hatred and desire for revenge only poison the individuals who carry those sentiments, and society.
Handing out penalties is the easy part. Rehabilitation of someone like Jon Venables clearly demands special professional skills and personal qualities in those engaged to help him. It also takes a lot of money, and the British government has spent millions on security, therapy and other services for him over the years, apparently to no avail. Arguably it has missed the mark because of – what? Unwillingness to discover or face his fundamental pathology? Perhaps it is time for some well-targeted investment in his mental and spiritual health.
Nothing, however, could be as therapeutic as the sense of a society that punishes and then forgives. God knows, we all need forgiveness, sometimes for very serious things that simply have never been discovered. Can Jon Venables find this anywhere in the world?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.