Are there some sins that are simply unforgivable? Are there some people, who, once they have committed certain crimes, can never be readmitted into society? Do we still believe, in some way, in the concept of transportation for life?
These questions are occasioned by the case of Ched Evans, the footballer and convicted rapist, whose attempts to re-enter the game are mired in controversy. Oldham Athletic are the latest English club to be linked with him, while Hibernians FC, the Maltese side, offered him a contract, it seems, only for the British government to announce that Evans, being on licence, cannot work abroad, but not before both the Prime Minister and Justice Minister of Malta aired differing views about the matter. Would employing Evans give the wrong message? Or does Evans deserve a second chance? Is he never to play again because footballers are role models? Would it be different, if, let us say, he was a banker?
This is a difficult case, to put it mildly, and it is complicated by the fact that Evans has not expressed remorse for his crime. But there is a reason for this: Evans maintains his innocence, and wants to appeal the conviction and clear his name, thus any apology might compromise this. But even if he did express remorse, would that make any difference?
As Christians we believe in condign punishment, but we also believe that after penance is done, forgiveness, and in some cases the sin being forgotten, with an end to reproaches or making someone feel guilty, ought to follow. It is absolutely wrong, surely, to continue to make someone suffer for a crime when they have already paid the penalty. Thus if a man does two and a half years in jail for his crime, ought we to carry on punishing him? Perhaps we feel the sentence was not enough – but in that case the matter should be taken up with the courts, not the criminal.
Victorian novels are full of people who are hunted down and harassed to death for the crimes of their past, for which they have bitterly repented, but never been allowed to forget: think of Michael Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House and the banker Bulstrode in Middlemarch. Of course, we have all outgrown Victorian morality, except for this one aspect of it. We want to make people pay, and pay again, or so it seems. Forgiveness is one of the many Christian doctrines we can feel that we can do without.
Or is it the case that rape is a peculiarly horrible crime? If Ched Evans had been a burglar or got into a fight and been sent down for GBH, could we forgive that? Is rape in a category of its own? If it is, then why doesn’t it carry a mandatory life sentence? Maybe it should? Or is footballing such an exalted profession that it must not be sullied in this way? Would Evans playing for Oldham, Hibernians or any other team desecrate the hallowed turf?
I am aware at this point of something that Alice Thomas Ellis once told me. She called it the Lord Longford syndrome: forgiving people who had done you no wrong. Lord Longford, she said, forgave Myra Hindley her sins, but he had not been the one sinned against. You can see her point. Ched Evans has not done anything wrong to me: I cannot forgive him, only those whom he has offended can do that. But at the same time, I can say, even though I care little about football, that at some point people are going to have to forget this case. Ched Evans cannot be made to suffer forever, can he? What sort of society is it where we relentlessly persecute sinners forever?
In all cases there has to be some sort of conclusion. All prisoners are released sooner or later, even if sometimes only in their coffins. (The case of those who are compulsive offenders is rather different.) When someone offends, pays the price, and is judged not to be a menace to the public – and one assumes this has happened in the case of Evans – then they must be forgiven and readmitted to society, surely? After all, wasn’t that what Jesus did to the Good Thief, who, as we all know, was anything but good?