We should be offering mercy to Carr and exacting retribution on Huntley

No serious church leader has tried to engage with the Soham killings in order to help us make sense of this breach of the moral order
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The Independent Online

It is a grim irony that the Huntley case should have reached its climax shortly before Christmas, so that the news vendors' shouts announcing guilt and judgment would mingle with the lights and decorations. The contrast could not be sharper. Christmas is now the children's festival, which has theological justifications as well as sentimental ones. For it heralds new birth, even in adverse circumstances; even in the darkest season, it celebrates renewal. The Christ-child is born in poverty and under the shadow of terrible suffering. Yet he offers hope and redemption.

I hope that the families of the two murdered children have enough faith to feel some of that message, for it is hard to know where else they could find comfort. A virtuous pagan might assert a stoical duty to endure at all costs - but what a burden to impose on mere stoicism.

Amid all the horrors, there was one aspect which might seem trivial. Yet something valuable has been lost. As far as I am aware, no serious church leader has tried to engage with the Soham killings, in order to help the rest of us to make sense of this hideous breach of the moral order. It seems that we can take it for granted that the church no longer has a serious role in public discourse, and no longer wants one. Yet that ought to be the church's role.

In moral conflicts, churchmen should always be in the front line: the special forces for moral emergencies. As they have several millennia of moral doctrine to draw on, they should not find it hard to remain immune from fashionable excitements, let alone from mob emotions. Yet in the sole comment by any churchman which achieved some attention, there did appear to be a pandering to mob justice. A clergyman in Grimsby warned Maxine Carr that she must not return to her mother's home. Nor did he distance himself sufficiently from the threats issued by others who had given the same warning. That was unworthy.

It would be an interesting exam question for theology students: "Could Ian Huntley ever be redeemed?" One might have had to be the late Frank Longford to answer "yes". But that question does not apply in Maxine Carr's case. She was not Hindley to his Brady. She was only a deluded girl of limited education who fell prey to a manipulative semi-psychopath. Those who have listened to the tapes are convinced that she believed him to be innocent. She thought that she was telling little lies to avoid a big miscarriage of justice. She should not have done it, but that does not make her a murderess, or a monster. In her case, clergymen and other civic leaders should be standing up to the mob, not agreeing with it.

Those who saw Miss Carr in court are also convinced that her remorse was genuine. So it ought to be - but that said, imagine what she will be feeling now. The man whom she thought that she loved murdered two little girls of whom she had been very fond. The arms which had embraced her towards delight gave strangling force to the hands... those memories and the memories of the lies she told must be red-hot coals of torment. No one but Dostoevsky could have done justice to the depths of her self-disgust.

As she herself has acknowledged, she deserved to be punished, and punishment it will be. Maxine Carr will either be confined in some secure wing with the real monsters, such as Rose West, or she will be at constant risk from other prisoners. Each day will have its own quota of danger. It is an experience which could break someone much tougher than Maxine Carr appears to be.

I never thought that I would find myself writing the next few words, but that girl needs counselling. It is to be hoped that the prison chaplains whom she encounters are rather more Christian than some of their brethren in Grimsby.

Those who are in charge of her will start with one advantage. She does not dispute the justice of her sentence. In her case, remorse and punishment could be therapeutic. They should help her to expiate her guilt, but only if she is helped to put that guilt in perspective. She had nothing to do with the girls' deaths. She does not deserve to be put to death or held in life-long confinement. She will never escape the taint of horror; that is her life sentence. But she does not deserve to be crushed by it. Once she has served her sentence, she will be entitled to rebuild her life.

Yet she will probably have to move abroad to do so. If she were to remain in this country, the red-top tabloids would ensure that she was branded with the mark of Cain. In this, they are not just trying to increase sales. Sensitive as ever to their readers' feelings, they are reflecting a widespread sense of frustration at the inadequacy of official vengeance. There, the mob has a point.

Huntley will spend the rest of his life in jail. That would stretch the resources of stoicism to the limit, even if he possessed them. Suicide might seem to be an easier option. That, indeed, is one pragmatic argument against the death penalty. It could easily be argued that if the aim were to maximise Huntley's punishment, he has received the right sentence.

But there is a further consideration. Especially in capital cases, sentencing cannot be purely pragmatic. Partly in order to satisfy the public that justice has been done, the sentence must contain an element of retribution. In the case of Huntley, there was only one way to achieve this. Most of the public are not prepared to reach for Bentham's felicific calculus and work out to a nicety the relative unpleasantness of spending life in jail or being hanged. They simply want him hanged.

Many of them also believe, erroneously, that this would act as a deterrent. There is no reason to suppose that Huntley would have been deterred, even if the sentence had been death, rather than life. But it would not be ignoble of the public to demand the death penalty in his case purely as an act of retribution. A crime like Soham does cry out for vengeance, and vengeance of an emotionally satisfying character. The hanging of Huntley would have brought the whole ghastly business to a quietus, in a way that his imprisonment can never do.

Reintroducing the death penalty would cause severe practical problems. It might not be easy to find juries to convict or judges to pass sentence. But if the sentence of death were only to be administered in extreme cases, so that only the worst of murderers were hanged, those problems might be diminished.

Moreover, once the public were satisfied that atrocious crimes would receive an appropriate sentence, its vindictive appetites might be satisfied. This could work to the advantage of the overwhelming majority of criminals who have not committed atrocities.

It could even have helped Maxine Carr. If Huntley were to be hanged, the mob might not feel so vengeful towards her. It is possible to feel heart-rent by the fate of the Soham children, but also to feel pity for Maxine Carr.