'I'd rather die than go back to the darkness'

Published Nov 14, 2004


It is clear I am intruding on a man's pain. I am not sure that he sees any real point in my being there and I am not sure I do either.

John Schneeberger has agreed to talk face to face, not about his past, not about the victims of sexual assault that landed this one-time family doctor from South Africa in a Canadian jail, but about the point, if any, of printing what he does or doesn't think about the "arrogance and evil" that beset him.

Released from jail last year on parole and deported back to South Africa in July this year, he is unlikely to want to speak publicly again.

"If pulling out the dirty washing helped to repair the damage I have caused, I'd do it gladly, but it won't.

"Maybe it is too simple to say that I have learned much since I committed my crimes, but that is the truth. I know now what led me to this trail of devastation and I will have to live with the nightmare for the rest of my life."

He's right; maybe that is too simple for one who, by his own admission has devastated the lives of those around him. On the other hand, what more can he do except, as he puts it, "be determined like some of those before me who have stumbled and fallen to get back on my feet and deal with each day as it comes?"

He calls it "a journey of hope". Woven into this process are the well-versed norms that no one should take that which is not freely given, there is simply no right way to do the wrong thing, and full comprehension of the word "no".

There is an understanding that the details of those darker avenues of his life, the price paid, the hurt he has caused and the things that can't be undone are not the stuff of banner headlines but a self-generating voyage that is as personal as his own breath.

Zambian-born Schneeberger, slimmer and shorter than I imagined, is clearly a highly intelligent man and speaks with a quiet intensity.

He reiterates that there is nothing that he can say or do that will change the way his victims feel about him.

"I equate my crimes to a terrible smash - where I am the cause of the devastation."

While it is possible to return, as he puts it, to the "nauseating scene of the accident over and over again", is it prudent to do so?

What is prudent, he believes, is to look at the bigger picture of restorative justice "as enshrined in the principles of the truth and reconciliation process", whereby healing the harm of crime is encouraged through a process that involves offender, victim, and community.

That process could still have far to go and in his case may never be resolved. His victims have asked that he not contact them directly or indirectly. Forgiveness therefore is a difficult word, a cruel jolt for those who have suffered, an impossible dream for those who have perpetrated.

"I would like to be forgiven, but I accept that that may never come about."

The former Stellenbosch University medical student, whose South African accent is still discernible after a decade or so in Canada, believes the journey he is on asks him to "stop the bleeding and allow the wounds to heal".

Nevertheless, it still leaves a vast amount unsaid. He doesn't tell me, but I know that television companies and magazines have offered him vast amounts of money to tell his story. He works long hours in a catering business - he could do with the money.

Has it ever been an option?

"If it helped the people I have hurt, I might have considered it, but it won't. Protecting their dignity is more important than any money I could earn talking about my life."

Yet there is no glossing over the fact that there is a voyeuristic fascination about the Schneeberger case for it plumbs the excesses of the human condition. There is also no glossing over the fact that there are those who would be more comfortable knowing that he is willingly participating in ongoing therapy.

It's not easy to judge whether the sentiments, the Christian values he expounds, are part of a genuine long-term reality. That, he says, is for him alone to prove.

But if the merits of retrospection are tenuous, the present and future have a more definite relevance. How, for example, can he, or the public at large, be certain that he will never commit the same crimes again?

"The long answer is it that there are many checks and balances in my life," he said. "The short answer is that I would rather die than go back to that darkness."

Saskatchewan forensic psychologist George Long, who was closely involved in Schneeberger's treatment and therapy, said his former patient had reached a stage where he was capable of getting on with his life. He said: "Emotional problems that were there have gone and there is now a strong emphasis on spirituality."

While Schneeberger has withdrawn his application to become reinstated as a doctor in South Africa he believes there is valuable work that he could still do.

- John Schneeberger said he did not want an updated picture taken of himself - the last time a current picture had been used he had been beaten up.

The facts

Schneeberger was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to six years in prison for sexually assaulting two victims and obstructing justice by inserting a tube filled with another man's blood in his arm to foil DNA tests.

His first victim, then 23, was given a paralysing drug and raped in a hospital examining room in Kipling, Saskatchewan, in 1992. The second, a teenager, was molested in 1994 and 1995.

On November 25 last year, Schneeberger was released from a British Columbia prison to begin two years of statutory release - supervised by parole officers - and took up residence, working as a labourer, in Regina. He was deported to South Africa in July this year and is now resident in Durban.

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