THE DEATH OF Myra Hindley — as was entirely predictable — has evoked an almost hysterical reaction from the popular press, for which, for over forty years, she has been a reliable source of highly coloured copy and easy tabloid sanctimony. Now she has died, in the 36th year of her imprisonment, there will be no more campaigns for her freedom, and no more campaigners for the Sun and the Mirror to savage.
In their final feeding frenzy, which went on for several days, the tabloids gorged themselves over many pages on the truly horrible details of the uniquely wicked series of crimes for which this woman was responsible. As one broadsheet leader writer reflected, "the tabloid rage against Hindley has something bestial and semi-pornographic about it — a desire, if that were possible, to add to the terrible pain of the murders themselves".
This frenzy of loathing against Hindley was far from unprecedented; but — at least on this scale — it has surely now unfolded for the last time. When Ian Brady, her partner in crime, dies (some are already speculating that his death will not be long delayed) there will probably be a more muted response, despite the fact that it was he who almost certainly was the leading light in their most horrible enterprise. But Brady never attracted the same public obloquy as Hindley, for two quite clear reasons. The first was that for a woman to lure away small children has always been seen as a horrible perversion of female nature — the woman nurtures and above all protects little children: she never (or so it was supposed) puts them to a horrible death. Hindley was able to lure away her victims because a child instinctively trusts a woman as he or she will not trust a man (even today, it is — not without good cause —strange men against whom children are warned).
The second reason she was so hated was one which Catholics of all people might be thought able to understand and explain, though in all truth it is, on the face of it, puzzling for anyone, Catholic or not. She was hated, not because, like Ian Brady, she was impenitent; it was, on the contrary, precisely her claims to have returned to the Catholic faith of her childhood and to have come as a result to a realisation of the enormity of her crimes, and to a true and sincere repentance for them leading — most unacceptable of all to many — to the absolution of all her sins.
This belief that she had sought, and been granted, God's forgiveness was very hard for some to bear. One contributor to a radio phone-in raged against the priest who gave her the "last rites": she should, he said, have been denied the Church's absolution so that she might burn forever in hell. One tabloid daily called it the "final injustice: she died peacefully", whereas her "young victims died screaming...".
More understandable was the suspicion that her remorse was bogus, that her pretended contrition was part of her campaign to be freed. This suspicion was, if anything, encouraged by some of her supporters, who argued that if it is the purpose of prison to lead criminals to remorse and to personal reform, then since that reform had taken place, then Hindley ought to be set free. Her Catholic supporters in particular, notably the late and greatly missed Frank Longford, argued more than once in this newspaper that Myra Hindley was now a good and pious Catholic and that prison was therefore no place for her.
It needs, however to be understood that it is no part of Catholic teaching that if a mortal sin has been absolved it follows that any civil or criminal penalty for it should be laid aside or even reduced in severity. The remission of eternal punishment has been granted: but temporal punishment runs its course — indeed, the patient acceptance of any such penalty may be a sign of the genuineness of the penitent's remorse. The Catechism of the Catholic Church enjoins on confessors to give penance which "must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed". The sinner too, having received absolution, "must do something more to make amends for the sin: he must 'make satisfaction' for ...his sins". And he must do what is possible "to repair the harm.... Simple justice requires as much".
Nothing could have been done, of course, to make amends to Brady's and Hindley's victims. But there was something, surely, that might have been done, if not to ease the lifelong pain of the childrens' parents, at least not to inflame it further. It is plain that the prospect of Hindley's release was a continual torment to the parents — and for those who have not undergone what they did implicitly to criticise them for this "unforgiving" attitude is to add insult to injury. The only amends that it was in her power to make to them was surely, therefore, the decision to end her campaign for her own liberty. She never took it. Was this a sign that her remorse was insincere? It is not for us to judge. But the "voluntary self-denial, sacrifices and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear", which the Catechism enjoins on the penitent, could surely for her have taken no other form that might have been even remotely adequate.
It was a cross she was not willing or, perhaps, to be charitable, able to bear. We repeat: it is not for us to sit in judgment on her now. But it needs to be said that the Christian case for her release was less overwhelming than has sometimes been claimed.