Once again a town's Catholic children and parents are grief-stricken. Joe Jenkins finds pride among the sorrow
IT WAS THE ULTIMATE expression of juvenile aggression. Last week, Louise Allen, a conscientious, sociable and wellliked 13-year-old, was kicked to death by a girl gang in Corby, Northamptonshire. Two girls, aged 12 and 13, have been charged with manslaughter and are in secure local authority accommodation as they await trial.
Louise intervened a good Samaritan, like Philip Lawrence in a dispute between a schoolfriend and girls from another school. Her friend survived, but Louise never recovered consciousness and the following day her life support machine was switched off. Her battered body had taken too much punishment. She died from a brain haemorrhage.
On a verge some 50 yards from the funfair which Louise visited on the way home from school on the evening of the attack, a mass of bouquets huddle, the size of a rugby scrum. The spot is overlooked by houses and is just yards from a roundabout. It seems absurd that in such a public place an act of this nature could happen.
Louise was "bubbly and effervescent" girl, "the same as any other 13-year-old," says Fr Niall Sheridan, chairman of governors at Louise's school, Our Lady and Pope "John, Corby.
"You wouldn't think, perhaps, she was the sort of person who would step in and do something like she did. But then again, who knows what's in any of us until we're up against it."
Recent tragedies in Britain have affected many young Catholics. With the murder of headmaster Philip Lawrence, pupils at St George's School in Maida Vale, north London, were devastated. The Dunblane massacre cut short five young Catholic lives and their teacher's.
"It's important to get the message across that this child died simply because of peace making," says Fr Sheridan. "Ninety-nine point nine per cent of us will never be called on to give our lives, but this is one Christian who has, at 13 years of age, and it's bloody hard.
"Nobody set out to murder anyone. I know the family of one of the girls in custody and I know the devastation that they must be feeling."
On a bus, a strong Glaswegian accent cuts through the gloom of an overcast day, a legacy of the years of heavy industry when workers from Aberdeen and Glasgow and Ireland headed south during Corby's steel rush. Some even
walked. Northamptonshire might not have had the glamour of the Yukon Valley but it provided thousands of jobs, spawned a new town and Corby remains home to the families of its predominantly Catholic Celtic invaders, which make up a population of a little over 50,000.
Since the death of the steel industry in 1981, Corby has defied expectations and has been the focus of major investment, and is home to the Oxford University Press. Corby is also where the Croatian national football squad will train for the European Championships next month.
AaTEENAGE BOY was murdered in a car park few years ago. Violence, if on an irregular basis, is not unknown to the people of Corby.
Fr Peter Wilson, parish priest at St Brendan's, was with Louise's parents when her life support machine was switched off. Fr Wilson gave me a guided tour of Corby on a local map. "Corby does things it's own way," he says. "It's a fantastic place. People take care of their families. Nobody tells us what to do." Indeed, it has been impressive how well protected Louise's parents have been by the school, only talking to the media when it has been on their own terms.
"Generally speaking," he says, "people die in their own beds in Corby."
A few hours before the special evening Mass held for Louise at her school two days after her death, Fr Wilson told me that the message of his homily to the children would be to "be gentle with each other".
At the school, the girls look nervous, fidgety and insecure. Boys busy themselves, sombrely arranging chairs in the hall for the evening's Mass.
"This was a kiddie I knew and knew very well," Fr Wilson says, showing me photographs of Louise in the newspapers. "She was a sweet kid, a real mother-figure. If you wanted something done sensibly and you asked Louise to do it, she'd do it and do it well.
"Words are hard to find. This has affected the whole town and we seem to be walking around in a daze at the moment. It's all a sort of unreality. The children are not sure how they should react.
"I don't blame anyone and the only reaction I've heard from the family is 'those poor wee girls, they've got to live with that for the rest of their lives'.
"The feeling I've picked up around the town is that it's as much a tragedy for them and their families as it is for Louise and her family.
"There are youngsters who are in custody. The familes of those girls are anxious and realise that their lives have been totally changed by this. What is the future for those girls? How are they going to cope in the years to come?"
BUT LOUISE WAS IlOt guilty of kicking anyone unconscious. Two girls have been charged, although it is clear that more were involved in the incident. Where does the balance of guilt, of responsibility for Louise's death, lie? Is society, in particular the young, becoming more violent?
Fr Patrick Cope, secretary to the Bishops' Conference Committee for Young People, says that tragedies like Corby and the death of two-year-old Jamie Bulger in Liverpool in 1994 "are extreme and happen rarely. We've to remember that often when something awful happens. those involved don't necessarily set out to go to these extremes."
This argument, with a stress on understanding and forgiveness, echoes Fr Sheridan and Cardinal Hume, speaking at a conference on young offenders earlier this year.
"The Church must be concerned for the victims of crime" and for their rehabilitation, said the Cardinal. But there is a "crucial need for society to be firm about the objective moral basis of the criminal law," and "we must never be soft on crime.
"Punishment must be given where punishment is due."
Fr Cope says that Louise Allen's death "is symptomatic of an increased use of violence in our society by young people, but I wouldn't want to overexaggerate it."
Fr Peter Wilson also acknowledges the need to address bullying, nationally and at Our Lady and Pope John.
"The school has a very strict policy on bullying," he says.
"After what happened, it will come through very clearly to the children with out anyone having to say anything to anybody, that this is why these rules are very important and why the school must take this line."
Last week the High Court ruled that the 15-year sentences of 11-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, imposed by Home Secretary Michael Howard for the murder of Jamie Bulger, were unlawful.
A tendency to be lenient on the young is natural. But if this results in the wrong message being sent to the minority who make the lives of their peers a living hell, then what lesson have we learnt from Corby?