A Jewish lesson for Jon Venables

Taking on a new identity is fraught with dangers — and we should know


By Keren David, March 11, 2010
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In all the thousands of words written and broadcast this week on the case of Jon Venables, one family has been conspicuously silent. I very much hope that the parents and sister of Sharona Joseph will not object to me writing about their loss, 22 years after her murder at the hands of an older child. I do so because I believe their wisdom and experience has much to offer the current rancourous debate.

Like James Bulger, Sharona was only two when she was led away from a children's party by a 12-year-old boy. Her death at his hands did not cause a national outcry, or an outpouring of moral debate. At the end of his trial, his right to anonymity was lifted - but later reimposed, after the Bulger case. Few beyond her family and community knew of Sharona's death; it did not seem to catch the public imagination as did the murder of James Bulger a few years later.

Nine years ago, Sharona's father Geoffrey Joseph gave an interview to a newspaper. He backed rehabilitation and education for young criminals, but said that he believed Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the boys who killed James Bulger, were being set free too soon. Reading this week about the apparent disintegration of Jon Venables, living under a false identity, one can only agree with him.

My novel, When I Was Joe, is about a teenager given a false identity as part of a witness protection programme. Becoming a new person at first has a seductive charm; it seems a chance to escape from the failings of the past and become someone new and better. But lying about every small aspect of your life is a trap, not an escape. If mental health is based on a robust sense of self, then having to assume a false identity amounts to the authorities imposing mental illness on those who are already stressed, vulnerable and in the case of Venables, damaged.

Lying about every small aspect of your life is a trap, not an escape

I was drawn to the subject by the paradox that intimidated witnesses seem to suffer a worse punishment than criminals. Victims can have an even worse deal. Although things have improved in recent years, there has been no retrospective legislation to put help and support in place for families like the Josephs, even though the violent loss of a beloved daughter is a true life sentence.

In 2001, as Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were freed, Geoffrey Joseph said that he thought that the "weighting of the scales of justice is wrong", leaning too far in the direction of the needs of offenders. Again, this week's events seem to prove him right.

One great source of anger and bitterness in the Bulger case, heard again and again this week, is the money spent on the two offenders, on their education and rehabilitation and on their new identities. The lack of money spent on giving proper support to victims' families can have a corrosive effect, on their families and on the wider community. James Bulger's mother Denise has survived his loss, in part by venting her anger and hatred. The effect may be ugly, but it is hard to judge a woman who has suffered so much and received so little help from the authorities that lavished money on rebuilding the children who savagely attacked her baby.

In 2001 the Josephs complained that probation services had neglected to give them any information about their daughter's killer. They wished to know if he had been freed, if he was living near to them. Their request seemed reasonable, and Mr Joseph stressed his opposition to "mob rule". Again, improvements to the law had been made since Sharona's murder, but the extraordinary circumstances of her death - a child killed by a child - were not enough for the police and probation services to give extraordinary care to her family.

Perhaps this debate resonates for Jews because we have so many times in history had to survive terrible loss within our families. We are, as a people, experts in hiding from mobs who want to kill us, moving to new places, taking new names and absorbing huge shifts in our identities. Perhaps this Shabbat we can take time to remember Sharona Joseph, one of our lost children, remembered by her family in many acts of charity and kindness.

Keren David’s novel, ‘When I Was Joe’, is published by Frances Lincoln at £6.99

    Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010

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