Safety comes with moral sense: The Liverpool murder shows how essential are new social priorities, says James Thompson, the Bishop of Bath and Wells

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The Independent Online
EVERY day we have heard more about the murder of James Bulger. Although our minds are numb with terrible stories, this has really penetrated our defences. There has been the sickening feeling that not only has a terrible crime been committed on a small boy, but that it may have been committed by children who were two-year-olds themselves only a few years ago.

Crimes committed by children are not isolated events and they induce panic feelings, a sense that all the safety boundaries of behaviour have been shattered. We want to ask: how did this young person travel from toddler to criminal in those childhood years?

All parents know that children are capable of nastiness, but when they lose all moral sense we blame the parents, or lack of parents,

because we assume that it is in

the home that the child has been brutalised by violence, hatred

or just terrifying inadequacy.

But it is not just the lack of home love or the mistakes or absence of parents: the phenomenon of children's crime poses a great critique of our society, the values we operate and our social priorities. We pound children with violence on television - our heads jangle with shattering glass, the crashing of cars, the sickening thud of boot against head. Unemployment is now more than three million, with all the pressure that brings to a home. We propagate such shallow materialistic values - and above all, we fail to share with our children the love of God.

Too many children grow up on a diet of loveless insecurity and their fragile moral antennae are vandalised beyond repair. They know of nowhere that they are valued, and therefore do not know how to respect others - and they are war veterans by the time they are 10.

It is so important that little James did not die in vain. If we cannot make parents take responsibility for providing children with a secure identity or some assurance that there is a place of safety and affection, many more of us have to be willing to work directly with children on a voluntary and professional basis. I had lunch recently with a young community worker who has just started working with children in east London. I asked him why.

'To make the world a better place,' he said, and 'to provide a male role model for boys who have no fathers, or fathers they despise, and to try to help them see there is another way'. I praise God for him and hope that James Bulger will call an army of such people.

When the 'parent' in a child is killed off because there are no trustworthy relationships with adults, so the alienation grows. The children tend to gang up together and behave as though the adults are occupying forces to be outwitted, deceived and, if possible, defeated. We have seen examples of this alienation where the old authority of the elders and the religion breaks down and the young begin to feel they are masters of their own hidden world.

The debate following James's death has concentrated on whom to blame and how to punish more severely. This might satisfy a thirst for vengeance, but it will not tackle the large number of children involved in crime. It is absurd to say all the blame lies with individuals, just as it is foolish to blame society. There is both individual and family responsibility. We are all caught up in the society we create. It is not an 'either or', but a 'both and'.

Our priorities in these last years have seen a massive withdrawal of funding from the organisations, institutions and voluntary groups which can provide 'home from home', when that domestic setting breeds crime. We have been conned into believing that love and trust are created by possessions and an empty freedom, whereas what is needed is a trustworthy setting for childhood development. We need discipline, because to give a child complete freedom is to cast it into a terrifying game without frontiers. We need to transform the gangs into teams, the orphans into loved children, and make clear where the boundaries lie.

I also believe that we are seeing the results of several generations' separation from the direct influence of faith in God and that while we have to date been freewheeling on the inheritance, it is now so reduced that some young consciences have never been introduced to the love and the demands of God. No doubt the church shares some blame for this. Heaven knows we have tried to alert society to this fact - but society has been too busy.

This is an expanded version of the Right Rev James Thompson's 'Thought for the Day', broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 18 February.