How we forgave my son's vicious killer: Parents whose teenage boy was beaten to death by thugs come face-to-face with offenders – and find the extraordinary strength to offer forgivenessRay and Vi Donovan met offenders jailed for their son's murder as part of Restorative Justice schemeTen years after Chris was killed they found the strength to embrace the perpetrators
Both offenders wept as they apologised to the DonovansNow the couple visit schools, prisons and youth offenders' institutes to advise on restorative justice
17:40 GMT, 20 August 2012
When Ray and Vi Donovan were awoken in the early hours of the morning to the horrific news that their two sons had been attacked by a gang while returning home that night, they felt as though their world had caved in.
The couple, discovered from the two officers at the door of their home in Surrey that one of their sons, Christopher, was fighting for his life. He later died from the injuries he sustained in the brutal attack.
The couple would have been forgiven for holding onto the anger they felt at the perpetrators forever.
Compassion: Ray and Vi Donovan found it in their hearts to forgive the men who killed their son Chris
Indeed, many couples crumble under the weight of the loss – the marriages of parents who have lost children are, tragically, more likely to end in divorce.
But 10 years on from Christopher's death, Ray and Vi have not only let go of their anger – but in an extraordinary show of compassion, they have managed to forgive the thugs that beat their son to death.
The couple's extraordinary compassion is thanks to the help of the restorative justice scheme, which allowed the couple the opportunity to come face to face with the men who killed Christopher.
In a meeting arranged by the Restorative Justice programme and mediators at the charity CALM (Confidential And Local Mediation), the couple met with two of the three perpetrators responsible for the crime when they came to the end of their sentences.
And in a moment of heart-wrenching humanity that brings tears to the eyes, Ray says that when one of the offenders entered the room, all he wanted to do was hug him.
'I held my hands out to him and he came to me and hugged me,' Ray says.
'He grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go. He cried and cried,' Ray says. 'As I cuddled him, he whispered “I'm sorry” in my ear.
'Then he turned to Vi and said simply, “May I” Vi nodded, and he went to hug her too. He said “sorry,” again and again.'
'We said “I forgive you”.
One of the offenders admitted to the Donovans that for the first two years of his eight year sentence, he didn't spare a thought for the victims of his crimes.
Tragic: Chris was attacked by a group of youths as he walked home with his brother Phil
But after he took part in a Victim Awareness course in prison, he says he couldn't get Chris out of his 'head and heart' and he felt an urgent need to apologise to the Donovans.
'He told us that he’d been a 15-year-old coward. He acknowledged he'd kicked Chris then left
him in the road and run away.
'That was something we'd waited ten years
to hear. He wasn’t at all the person we’d expected to see.'
Asked how they found it in their hearts to forgive their son's killers, Ray displays a compassion many of us would find impossible.
'These boys were just 15, 16 and 19 when they attacked Chris,' he told MailOnline.
'We don't blame them – we blame the drug dealers that gave them the drugs they were on that night; the people who bought them alcohol.'
Neither do the Donovans blame the parents – in fact, they reserve enormous sympathy for the mother and father of one of the offenders in particular, who have spoken on the BBC about the horrific moment their front door was kicked down by 30 policeman.
'They are decent people,' Ray says. 'But they had to cope with something most of us could never imagine happening to us.
'I always say there are four lots of people who lost – us, and the parents of those three boys. They have to live for the rest of their lives with the stigma that their sons are murderers.'
Ray's seemingly limitless compassion does not end there. He set out to get one of the offenders – an artist – a job and a place on a mentoring programme to become a curator.
The man is now working for a charity – Ray is not allowed to say which.
'I called the director and got him a place,' Ray says. 'The secretary who took the call was in tears when she heard the story.
'Now he's been mentored into the art world as a curator. Isn't that better than him walking the streets'
Ray says that he has visited the offender at the art institution to see how he is getting on, but that he doesn't have daily contact. 'It wouldn't be fair to check up on him,' Ray says. 'It would throw everything out, upset the apple cart. We know he is doing well there and that's enough.'
Ray and Vi have published a booklet – entitled Five Minutes Of Madness – to bring awareness to youngsters of the consequences of crime.
The booklet's name comes from an incident that happened in the riots of last summer. Two boys were passing through a riot zone and happened to put their hands through a broken window to lift two packs of chewing gum.
They were later identified and sentenced to months in prison.
Ray uses this as an example of how five minutes of madness can change the course of a young person's life forever.
The booklet – which they mark with a price of 1.50 but give away (kids are more likely to read something if it has a price tag on it and they think they've got something for free,' he says) – contains the stories of the boys in the riot, as well as a boy who knifed someone to 'gain respect.'
'We ask the question, 'why is that sort of respect more important than your family's respect', and try to get the kids to think about what they would lose by going to jail.'
Lost youth: Chris as a teenager celebrating his birthday
The Donovans now advise the probation service on restorative justice too.
'Each meeting takes months of planning,' he says. 'The scheme is victim-led, not offender-led. There are safety valves all over the place – get out rooms for both parties.
'It's important that the victim gets to make decisions, even down to who will be in the room first'
Ray says that he chose to be in the room first – so that he could hold out his hands to the offenders.
'The most important part of the process is the tea and biscuits after the official meeting,' he says.
'With the second boy, after the meeting [which is chaired by a counsellor] we talked for four hours.
He's a plasterer learning the trade, and he told us all about his girlfriend and the baby that's on the way.
'Neither of us had to stay for the tea and biscuits – but it was the most healing part.'
It was a welcome moment for the Donovans, who have battled with their own guilt in the years following the death of Chris.
The family had only recently
moved from Peckham to New Malden in Surrey, close to where the fatal attack occurred, assuming it would be a safer
place to bring up their sons.
For Ray, one of the most painful elements of the events that unfurled that night is the knowledge that he had turned down Chris's request for a lift home.
'He asked me to drive him, but I said
I was too tired,' Ray says. 'Then he went to meet Phil and said they
should get a mini cab – but Phil had just been paid, and said that as it
was a nice evening, they should walk.'
'The hardest thing for me was that Chris had tried to get a lift twice – and twice he had been turned down.
'It took a policeman to teach me to
forgive myself. He said to me, “Ray, 'What if' won't bring Chris back.
You're just destroying yourself. It was better than any psychiatrist.'
Ray's final word is one that many will find inspiring. 'If we go around angry, what kind of example is that to set' he asks.
'This was the best way we could find to honour Chris. We could have had a park bench made with a plaque on it – or we could do what we are doing. That's the way we look at it.
'What's more important A park bench or changing someone's life'
The Victim's Voice will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 tonight (Monday 20 August) at 8pm.
Ray and Vi will be on Radio Surrey tonight at 5.30pm to talk about their experience with the restorative justice scheme.