Thought for the Week: Robert Ashton gives his word

‘What moved me most was the handwritten letter that arrived a week or two later.’

‘Before God we are all equally wise – and equally foolish.’ | Photo: by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash

A few months ago now, I wrote here about the eco-home I’m planning to build. I’m told it will be one of the most energy-efficient homes in the country.

The article prompted several positive comments, with Friends offering encouragement. But what moved me most was the handwritten letter that arrived a week or two later. It was written by Richard, a man serving an eight-year sentence. He had become a Quaker while in prison and had a professional interest in water-saving technology. He thought it might be useful for my proposed new home.

I was curious to learn why he was in prison, so googled his name and discovered some lurid reports. One described him as a ‘ruthless sexual predator’ and another described him as a ‘pervert’ who had been ‘caged for eight years’. I replied, thanking him for his interest in my project, and described my own journey to becoming a Quaker. I am a volunteer with Circles UK, a charity that supports sex offenders, and mentioned that he might find it helpful to join a Circle when he leaves prison.

He wrote back, thanking me for my willingness to correspond, saying that he had in general found Quakers to be ‘magnanimous’ in accepting him. Naturally I am led by our testimony to equality to value his friendship, and we have become pen-pals. Richard now knows where I live and, as the weeks pass, we learn more about each other. This developing mutual trust is deeper than either of us would experience if in a Circle, as the ex-offender, known as a ‘core member’, never knows the address, or often the family name, of the volunteers who support him.

I’m reminded of something Albert Einstein once said: ‘Before God we are all equally wise – and equally foolish.’ How true that is, and how wrong it is to deny anyone the opportunity to put mistakes behind them. Yet the biggest fear that haunts sex offenders is that of exposure, prejudice and victimisation. The internet makes it easy for anyone to learn of Richard’s past, which will make it harder for him to rebuild his life.

We all make mistakes as we go through life, at times being foolish and at times being wise, and the media is quick to pillory those in public life when there is even a whiff of wrongdoing. Careers are destroyed overnight and ‘moments of madness’ have seen successful people banished to a life of obscurity and regret. On social media reputations can be dashed with little, if any, evidence.

We will never prevent lurid headlines, nor will legalisation force news stories from the internet after a few years. Search engines can reveal more than we would wish to be known. For most of us this is simply annoying, and occasionally embarrassing, but for sex offenders it can be deeply damaging. All we can do as Quakers is to lead by example and treat others equally.

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