There's something haunting about the only image we possess of Jon Venables, that of a 10-year-old boy – dark-haired, alert – nothing like the face of evil. God knows what he looks like now: publishing the image of the man Jon Venables, 27 years old and back in prison for child pornography offences, would be tantamount to a death sentence.
But it's somehow fitting that the only picture of him we shall ever have is that of the schoolboy who, with his friend Robert Thompson murdered poor little James Bulger, aged two. Because that is the identity in which he is forever fixed; for most of us he will never be anything other than the killer of James Bulger. It's The Picture of Dorian Grey in reverse: Venables will age and change outwardly, but the image of him in the public mind will be always that of the boy who killed a boy.
Indeed, the outcry at his two-year sentence almost certainly isn't really about what he did in the past few months, horrible as it was. The reason why there is visceral indignation that he was free to offend and will, in the future, be free again seems to be retrospective: it's revulsion at the crime he committed as a child. The two crimes somehow elide: there is a horrible congruence in the fact that a former child murderer should possess images of the violation of children as young as James Bulger.
It is, however, a principle of natural justice that a man should, having served his time, be allowed to start afresh. Jon Venables was unapt for normal life on his release in 2001, and the circumstances in which he lived would have taxed the resources of any of us. As he said through his solicitors, he had no idea "quite what the world he was released into was like, or how it worked". He was coached in a new identity, but living that identity, perpetually fearful for his life if the mask should slip, unable to form a normal relationship with a woman because he would have to share his secret – that was an existence which at least makes explicable his drinking habit.
To his credit, he was constantly in employment since his release, on the minimum wage, but he lived in the shadows, working evening and night shifts. "One of the major impacts on his life has been the inability to share his huge secret," as his pre-sentence report observed. That is a life sentence of sorts.
He was released when he was 18, at a time when most of us are confused and unsettled; his later convictions for affray and for drugs offences were unsurprising. And it tells us everything that his return to prison, an orderly world, has come as "something of a relief". Were his child pornography offences some sort of attempt to return there?
Of course, James Bulger's mother could justifiably respond that she too, has been serving a life sentence since her son was murdered. But even if we accept that Venables deserved his punishment, we should also allow him, as the tenets of Christianity insist, the possibility of transcending his offence. Some of his internet abusers would have been happier if he had never been released, but he was, and will be again. Hounding him when he is out of prison will not bring James Bulger back to life, will not make child pornography even less acceptable; it will simply add one more to the toll of taken or wrecked lives.
Venables will have a full two years in prison; perhaps this time he will get the moral, educational and spiritual support he needs – maybe with the help of a decent prison chaplain. But after that, a civilised society would allow him to start a new life: even murderers and child pornographers deserve the chance of redemption.Reuse content