My Friendship With A Murderer: Simon Manchester

By Clare ChateTuesday 9 Feb 2016

Listen: Clare Chate interviews Simon Manchester about his friendship with convicted murderer, Bronson Blessington

Imagine a teenager is found guilty of the horrific rape and murder of an innocent 20-year-old.

He’s not only put in jail, but in response to public outrage, the state also changes the law to make sure he stays there for life—and throws away the key.

Now, 26 years later, imagine a well trusted and respected voice vouching for that criminal’s good character.

What do you do? Believe the voice? Hear him out? Or shout him down?

Now, stop imagining.

Because Bronson Blessington is the real-life murderer, jailed for killing Janine Balding in 1988, and preacher Simon Manchester is that real-life voice calling for his sentence to be reconsidered.

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As the highly respected minister of St Thomas’s Anglican Church in North Sydney, Simon Manchester influences thousands of people; his sermons are heard across Sydney through radio station Hope 103.2 each Sunday morning.

So when he began advocating in the media for the cause of a convicted killer, we wanted to know why.

What formed his view that Bronson Blessington is a reformed and changed man? Is Simon Manchester Australia’s most kind and gracious pastor? Or has he been thoroughly duped?

We invited him in into the studio, to tell us in his own words.

It all began, he says, 12 years ago – when a letter arrived in the mail.

How A Preacher Met A Murderer

Handwritten letter

“I got this letter out of the blue, and the letter was from [Blessington], saying that he’d been listening to my sermons on [radio station, Hope] 103.2,” Simon told Hope Media.

“He basically expressed gratitude and introduced himself. He thought I might be interested in his story.

“I supposed he would’ve sent that to me when he was about 30, and it was a very God-honouring testimony. I think that was the thing that struck me. He was really saying, not “woe is me” or “I have been badly treated”, but “I am a person who has sinned very greatly and I’m deeply grateful for the way God has had mercy on me”.”

Curious but cautious, Simon went to Parklea Correctional Centre to meet with Blessington, and see if the man in the flesh matched up with the story he told.

“I must say I went along a little bit suspicious,” he said. “I didn’t really know whether this was a real thing or not. And I found myself alone with him in Parklea Prison, maximum security.”

He was surprised by the person he met.

“I was immediately struck by the fact that he was very gentle, he was very humble, he was very broken about what he’d done,” Simon explained. “There was no blaming or playing games. He was more interested in me than he was in himself, and he was deeply grateful for Jesus Christ.”

Blessington’s Christian Conversion

Prisoner reading Bible

Blessington was 14 when he was jailed. Two years into his incarceration, according to the Good Weekend, he met a youth pastor called Jack Begnell and a group of young people who were visiting the jail he was in.

They told him the message of Jesus and forgiveness and, in Simon’s words, “he very keenly believed—and was quite quickly changed by that”.

The formerly illiterate teenager became, quite literally, a prison evangelist.

“He went into prison without the ability really to read or write, but his new faith at the age of 16 made him very hungry to know Christ, so he virtually taught himself to read by reading the Bible,” Simon said, “and then he became a keen sharer of the gospel.

“By the time I got there, there were 75 men in the wing and he had at least half of them in a kind of discipleship system that he was running.”

“A Good Friend”…“He Rings Me Every Week”

While Simon has met with Blessington in person only a handful of times, they exchange letters roughly every month, and speak on the phone regularly.

“He rings me every week, almost without fail, sometimes twice a week,” he said. “We get to talk for six minutes and then the phone just runs out.”

Simon describes the phonecalls as “an absolute breath of fresh air”.

“We’ve become good friends. I appreciate him very much. In some ways he’s an unusual gift to me.”

“He never rings to complain, he basically rings to encourage me to keep going in my ministry. He will tell me Bible verses, promises to look up, and he might tell me opportunities he’s had [to talk to people about faith]. Sometimes he’ll ask for prayer, but he generally doesn’t ask for anything at all.”

Simon describes Blessington as a friend and a ‘gift’.

“We’ve become good friends,” he said. “I appreciate him very much. And in some ways he’s an unusual gift to me, because he is in a tough place, calling me from a much worse situation than I’m in, telling me to be courageous, stop being a ‘wuss’ and keep on with ministry.

“He has really taught me, I think, what Paul says in Philippians, which is “I’ve learned in all things to be content”. He doesn’t whinge, he doesn’t ask me for anything, he doesn’t complain, and in that sense, he is an exceptional friend.”

Why Support A Man The State Wants Behind Bars?

prison barbed wire Bronson Blessington

Since Blessington was jailed, the NSW Government has adjusted the law a number of times to ensure that he – and other infamous murderers – stay there until they die.

The United Nations has said that these laws in fact violated human rights conventions in Blessington’s case, because he was under 16 when he committed the crime. Nevertheless, appeals against the laws have been unsuccessful and the life sentence stands. So in effect, Simon Manchester is advocating for a man whom the state hopes will ‘rot in jail’.

To this, Simon gives a measured response.

“The first thing I would say is there’s no doubt that he should’ve gone to jail,” he said. “There’s no doubt Biblically he should be there. And I think every fibre of justice says he should be there.

“But I’m interested in asking the question as to whether – if God intervenes in somebody’s life and changes them, and that change is real and long-lasting and profound so that he is a dramatically different person – is there a case for reassessing that person?

“What do we do when somebody has been dramatically changed? That’s the question.”

“Is there a case for saying this person has lived a certain amount of time in such a model way, having good influence behind bars, that they could be useful outside?”

He believes there should be no clemency for a dangerous, remorseless convicts, but wants the law to reconsider those with changed character.

”From a Christian point of view, I think we’ve got to ask, is our world ever going to take conversion seriously?” Simon asked. “I’m not talking about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or just getting an education, I’m talking about where God intervenes and changes you.”

How Can You Be Sure His Faith Is Genuine?

Sceptics assume that converts to Christianity behind bars are simply faking their faith, to try and improve their chances of release.

But Simon Manchester believes Blessington’s has stood the test of time.

“I think if a person is faking with their conversion, they will tend to either be using you, because they want to get something out of you, or it will be quite short term, because it’ll just come for the term of the deed that they can win,” he said.

“And also I’ve noticed, as a pastor, that people who are faking their religion are not really interested in Jesus Christ or the scriptures.

“But Bronson never asks me for anything. He wouldn’t want me to be doing this interview. He is virtually entirely interested in my welfare, not his own.  His Christian faith has been going 25 years, through thick and thin, and it’s been no advantage to him to be a Christian behind bars.

“He’s suffered a lot for that.”

(According to Blessington’s written testimony, he’s come close to being killed on more than one occasion, for sharing his faith in prison).

“He has a profound gratitude for Jesus, and a great devotion to Jesus,” Simon said. “And when I visited him on one occasion, his New Testament was worn back to the print. So there were virtually no edges. You don’t see that in a faker.”

Blessington’s Ongoing Regret And Remorse

Prison corridor

According to a Marie Claire article, policeman Steve Pearson who led the forensic investigation into the Janine Balding murder, has no interest in the pleas for clemency of people like Blessington.

Blessington and his fellow convicted killer Matthew Elliott were flippant during the murder trial and were the “dregs of society”, “far beyond help”, he told the magazine.

“I don’t believe people like that can be rehabilitated,” he said.

But in contrast, Simon Manchester says his friend is “exactly the opposite” of careless.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when Bronson doesn’t wish he could undo the past,” he said.

What About Claims That Blessington Is Two-Faced?

One prominent Sydney radio broadcaster said this week that he’d talked to prison officers who know Blessington, and they believe he’s far from an upright man.

But Simon Manchester maintains the man’s integrity, saying that he’s not the only one who has seen it.

“I have spoken to and heard from prison officers who tell me Bronson is an exceptional inmate.”

“I myself have read letters from prisoners thanking God for Bronson, I myself have spoken to and heard from prison officers who tell me Bronson is an exceptional inmate,” he said.

“And I have met one lady who told me mothers with sons in prison thank God for Bronson.”

During one prison visit, Simon met a young inmate’s mother, who had nicknamed Blessington “Paul” – after the Biblical apostle – for the way he’d taken her son under wing in his fledgling faith.

“She said, “My boy’s been converted under Bronson’s ministry and he’s a brand new person”.”

Can A Murderer Offer Anything To Society?

It’s Simon’s view that someone like Bronson Blessington could do much good both inside and outside prison walls.

“Behind bars, from the age of 16 when he began to grow as a Christian and then to point people to Christ, he was able to say to people, “I know what sin is like, I’m a sinner, and I know what Jesus is like, He’s a great saviour”,” Simon said.

“He has had a remarkable influence. He has pointed probably thousands of people to Christ, and has helped maybe hundreds to enter into a relationship with Christ.

“I wonder whether there is a wider canvas for him to work on if he was to come out.”

“If I Met The Balding Family”

In 1997, the mother of murder victim Jodie Larcombe took her own life, after learning that her daughter’s killer had lodged an appeal against his conviction. It’s a tragic illustration of just how much pain a victim’s family is dragged through, every time they are faced with the thought of the killer going free.

When presented with this story, Simon Manchester’s eyes well up.

“I’m distressed to hear about that situation,” he said.

“The last thing I want is to pretend that what Bronson did was not horrific. It was horrific.”

“I have two daughters of my own and if anything happened to those two girls, I don’t know what I would do. And Janine’s dad Kerry or her brother David, her mum Bev, who’s passed away, have been through an unbelievable horrific time. And I can’t presume to have simple answers. The last thing I want is to pretend that what Bronson did was not horrific. It was horrific.”

But he stands by his convictions.

“Some people are let out after a few years, no remorse,” he said. “So people are coming back out of jail having committed murder, and it seems a very arbitrary situation.

“And all I can say is that relating to a guy like Bronson for 12 years and realising the Godliness of this man, I’m asking the question, is there a place for reviewing, and maybe releasing?”

Balancing Holiness And Justice, With Mercy And Grace

Those who hear Simon Manchester’s preaching will know that he is a man of strong convictions, who’s not shy of talking about the consequences of sin.

But he’s also a preacher of grace.

“I see Jesus speaks in black and white, broad road narrow road, but if I do talk about the holiness of God, I hope I talk a lot about the grace of God,” he said. “I think if you didn’t have a high view of the love of Jesus and a deep view and wide view and a long view, you wouldn’t have anything hopeful to say to people.

“Life or religion that stresses justice without mercy, is a harsh system. Life that stresses mercy without justice is a sentimental system. But justice and mercy is the balance we need.”

Release Is Highly Unlikely

inside prison cell Bronson Blessington

Given the failed appeals by similar criminals to their life sentences, including that of Virginia Morse killer Kevin Crump, Blessington’s chances of release seem slim to none.

I ask Simon what he’d say to his friend, if it became clear he could never be released. In response, the pastor recounts a phonecall in which he guiltily admitted to Blessington he’d just come back from the beach. His friend’s reaction was optimistic.

“He said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, there’s going to be a lot of beach in eternity”,” Simon recalled.

It’s an attitude that he says has kept the man going.

“There’s a part of him which is prepared to endure imprisonment for the whole of his life, knowing that eternity is to come,” he said. “And that’s what he looks forward to.

“I don’t have to solve his problems. He has peace with God, he’s freer in prison than most people outside of prison, and his eye is fixed on eternity. He’s ready for the judgment day. There’ll be no condemnation for him because of Jesus; even though humanly he deserves it. That’s been taken away by grace.”

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