I went to confession a few hours before my father died.
My relationship with my father had been turbulent for more than 40 years, and I wished to find closure before his death. I did not want the hostility I had let brew over a lifetime haunting the rest of my life.
After hearing my story the priest grabbed my hand and took control of my spirit: He ordered the demons that possessed me to leave me at once in the name of the Christ whose protection I had beseeched. We prayed together, and I felt healed.
Since then I have been at peace with my father and with myself. I will always be grateful to that priest for turning around my life at a critical moment with his ministry. Without his timely intervention I would have engaged in a path of self-destruction, as a prisoner of my own living hell for the rest of my days, and maybe beyond.
The year was 1991, and the priest was Father Robert Schaeufele. He is now in prison. Five years ago, he pleaded guilty to sex crimes with children (more than 20 men said they had been abused as boys) and was sentenced to 30 years. His abuses had already occurred by the time he heard my confessions. Yet this man full of sin — who had violated the laws of God and of man — had been able to help me.
His crime left triple wounds: It caused unending pain to the children who grew up damaged by abuse, it shook the confidence of the believers in the church, and — odd as it may seem at first — it deprived other people of the healing ministry of Father Schaeufele. When I needed spiritual help, he had the power to make whole a broken soul.
Traveling to the United States last week, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the depth of the problem of sexual abuse. He expressed regret and shame, and he asked forgiveness. In all of these actions, the pope began to salve this triple wound. Anything short of a papal pronouncement, any attempt to justify or minimize this horrendous crime, would have worsened the crisis of confidence in the church and emphasized the impression that the victims had been abandoned and ignored by their spiritual father.
As a believer and as a person who has benefited throughout his life from the ministry of the Christian clergy, I hope that the papal message will help people to accept that this overall ministry is not compromised by the personal flaws and sins of the individual minister. The common Christian belief, shared by all denominations, is that Jesus trusted his message of salvation to other human beings, each carrying a personal baggage of vices and weaknesses. It is perhaps for these reasons that when I found out about my confessor's grave sins, it did not shake my faith in the church itself.
In the very Gospel we learn that Peter had denied Jesus thrice and that the apostles were fighting each other for the Lord's attention. The Acts of the Apostles and the apostolic letters relate unending squabbles in the early church as well as unending attempts to use religion for personal gain. Yet, despite those shaky beginnings, the Christian church has grown around the world, and has fulfilled the deepest aspirations for love and forgiveness of billions of people.
In the history of the church people of faith see the enduring intervention of God that uses even corrupted people to proclaim hope in a new birth. And why should we be surprised by the fact that corrupted individuals may minister healing? As a physician I met plenty of excellent thoracic surgeons who where heavy smokers, excellent cardiologists who gorged tons of fat, and excellent infectivologists who practiced unsafe sex.
I hope that Pope Benedict restored the faith in the church as a miracle of God effected through faulty and frail human beings. The lasting consequence of this restoration may be the acceptance of a church whose operators are human even if the message is divine. The acceptance of the humanity of priests and ministers — while certainly not condoning immoral behavior — may foster the acceptance of our own humanity. In this way we may become able to extend to ourselves the forgiveness we have conceded to the straying priests. What I learned from Father Schaeufele, at the time of my father's death, is that Christian grace helps us to live with ourselves, rather than freeing us of ourselves.
Dr. Lodovico Balducci is a professor of oncology and medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine and is director, Division of Geriatric Oncology, at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.