The first time I meet Mary Foley she is addressing a rapt group of 15 and 16-year-olds in a humanities class on forgiveness. Tall, handsome and quietly spoken, she begins the session by taking out a few photographs and pinning them to the whiteboard.
“This is Charlotte, my daughter. She was no angel, she had her challenges, but she was loving and caring, and popular among her peers. And here’s Charlotte, joking around with her friends,” Mary says.
After a moment’s pause, Mary pins up the next picture — a girl with her hair scraped back who seems to stare defiantly out into the room. Mary turns towards the class, her voice softening with pity: “And this is Beatriz, who killed her.”
It is an extraordinary beginning to an extraordinary story: the tale of a terrible murder and its aftermath — the kind of crime that usually gets sensational tabloid treatment but scant human understanding.
Charlotte, Mary’s eldest child, was stabbed to death at a 16th birthday party in April 2005. In February 2006, Beatriz Martins-Paes, the girl with the defiant stare, was jailed for life for the attack.
Two girls, two wasted lives, and two devastated families left in their wake: it is only too easy to see how such a senseless crime could lead to years of terrible sorrow, bitter resentment and a desire for revenge.
But the most extraordinary part of this story is that Mary Foley has not only chosen to forgive her daughter’s killer, but also to have regular contact with her. They have written to each other several times, and Mary is currently waiting for clearance to visit Beatriz in London’s Holloway prison. Through the Forgiveness Project, which encourages reconciliation and conflict resolution, Mary frequently visits prisons to talk to violent offenders.
But what does it take for a parent to forgive such a crime? In 2008, just a few days after the murder of her son Jimmy Mizen in a south London bakery, a clearly devastated Margaret Mizen said publicly, “I don’t feel anger — I feel sorry for the parents. We’ve got such lovely memories of Jimmy and they will have such sorrow about their son. I feel for them, I really do.”
Last November, Anglican vicar Simon Boxall said he and his wife, Rachel, “refused to be shackled by bitterness” and forgave the killers of their daughter Rosimeiri, who jumped to her death to escape her tormentors.
For many parents, this is an unimaginable act of faith — an almost foolish exercise of tolerance. We don’t doubt the sincerity of the sentiment; we can understand that sudden burst of generosity born out of extreme circumstances. But we secretly ask ourselves whether such forgiveness is a statement of moral intent rather than an authentic emotional reality. And can it endure through the long years of grief?
To meet Mary Foley, 46, is to be convinced that forgiveness is entirely possible. She speaks with tenderness and sorrow for the trials of Beatriz’s life that turned her, in Mary’s words, “into a ticking time bomb.” At the same time, she condemns the crime itself; she was angry when Beatriz recently applied to get her sentence reduced.
This does not mean that forgiveness is easy, quick or without its ambiguities. Rather, Mary describes it as a long road traveled — one that begins and ends with heartbreaking loss.
“I have lost my eldest daughter. She has lost her life and her future. She will never have children. I will never have grandchildren. She will never look after me in my old age,” Mary says.