Tag Archives: Jesuit

From Profane to Sacred

October 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Twenty-five years ago hordes of television cameras and newspaper reporters descended on Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to cover the trial of a 31-year-old serial killer whose depths of depravity defied comprehension. Details of the murders—17 in all, but he confessed to 15—proved so grisly, so grotesque, that many media outlets showed restraint in their coverage for fear of alienating a large portion of their viewers or readers.

Even today, with all the atrocities plaguing the world, the name Jeffrey Dahmer can still send shivers down spines. The terms paraphilia, necrophilia, mutilation, and cannibalism all apply—terms that baffle and horrify most lay people.

The trail of carnage left by the chocolate factory worker and Army veteran during a 13-year period finally ended in July 1991 when police, alerted by an intended victim who escaped, walked into Dahmer’s apartment. Blood, body parts, a stench, and Polaroid pictures stopped them in their tracks.

“We really didn’t know what we were dealing with early on,” says the Rev. Gregory O’Meara, S.J., who as an attorney played a key role in shaping the prosecution’s case against the so-called “Milwaukee Cannibal.” He also assisted Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann during the trial.

Before becoming a Jesuit priest, a vocation that brought him to Creighton University in 2013, O’Meara spent almost seven years as an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee. The graduate of Notre Dame and University of Wisconsin Law School found his niche in the competitive world of trial work, where he racked up plenty of wins. Would he follow in his great-grandfather’s footsteps and become a judge? All signs pointed to that possibility.

Through a random series of events, O’Meara, 32 at the time and known as Greg to his friends, caught the Dahmer case early. He was among the first to see the evidence.

“We had missing persons reports coming in from all over the country,” he recalls. “I wrote the order to get Dahmer’s blood sample so we could separate his blood from blood found at the scenes to determine who he killed.”

The blood came from attractive young men, many of whom lived on the fringes of society, kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation—easy pickups for a good-looking charmer like Dahmer.

“He was actually a nice guy,” says O’Meara, who talked with Dahmer many times, saw him in all his complexities, and came away with a compassion for the man most people would not understand. “He was very smart, he came from a rich family but he was horribly vulnerable [to his impulses]. His co-workers found him charming, funny, and engaging.”

The funny and engaging part disappeared pretty quickly after Dahmer lured his victims to his grandmother’s house, or his apartment, and started drinking.

In most of the murders, Dahmer sedated his victims by slipping a sleeping agent into their drinks. He raped his unconscious prey, strangled them, and then engaged in various sex acts with the corpses. He dismembered the bodies with a knife or chain saw and disposed of them by stripping the flesh off bones with acid, then pulverizing the bones.

He collected skulls and genitalia as trophies. He ate parts of three victims, telling psychiatrists later it was a way he could make them become a part of him. Police reports from the scenes make mention of various seasonings and meat tenderizers. The media latched onto the cannibal aspect of the case, thus coining Dahmer’s nickname.

Dahmer’s desperate desire to acquire a permanent—and compliant—lover added yet another layer of “bizarre” to his horror story. He drilled holes in the skulls of his last four victims and poured acid into their brains in an attempt to create a sex zombie. It didn’t work.

Was Dahmer sane when he committed these depraved acts?

“Absolutely, whatever definition of sanity we have, ” says O’Meara, echoing the prosecution’s contention that he belonged in a prison, not an institution—the question at the center of the trial.

“He calculated and deliberately planned everything to the point that, when he was leaving a bar, he would never go home with someone who had a car. He would always have a taxi drop them off four or five blocks away from his apartment so no one could trace it.”

After a two-week trial in February 1992, the jury agreed with the prosecution. Dahmer went to prison, where he died at the hands of another inmate a few years later.

Six months after the trial ended, O’Meara entered the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.

“I had actually been thinking about it for a couple of years, but the timing hadn’t been right,” he says, waving off any assumption, as logical as it might sound, that the horrors of the Dahmer trial sent him straight to the priesthood.

O’Meara’s good friend since 1985, the Rev. Roc O’Connor, S.J., an Omaha native and the first Jesuit O’Meara ever met, had a sense early on where O’Meara was heading. The Dahmer case solidified his feeling. “As horrible as that case was, Greg showed a lot of compassion. But he also had a lot of care for the victims and their families. He made sure they wouldn’t be lost in the flash of [Dahmer’s] terrible deeds.”

O’Meara hasn’t thought of himself as a prosecutor for 25 years, preferring his roles as rector of Creighton’s Jesuit community, tenured law professor, counselor to anyone who seeks his help, and a friend who laughs easily.

Few parishioners of St. John’s Church on the Creighton campus even know of O’Meara’s involvement in that infamous case, so when he joyously and repeatedly proclaims his belief of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, they don’t realize he’s drawing from a deeper well than most.

Visit law.creighton.edu/faculty to learn more about the academic and professional background of the Rev. Gregory O’Meara.

This article appeared in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

From Omaha to Notre Dame

October 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill SItzmann

On a seasonably pleasant Friday evening last July, members of the Jenkins and Wessling families gathered at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church for a wedding. The bride’s uncle had traveled back to his hometown to officiate. Dr. Erin Jenkins and her dozens of cousins know the priest simply as Uncle John. You know him more formally as the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross), president of the University of Notre Dame.

As leader of the most renowned Catholic school in the country—perhaps in the world—Jenkins’ responsibilities and schedule leave little room to breathe. Yet he found time to honor a twin daughter of his older brother, Tom, and to squeeze in another opportunity to visit with his beloved 86-year old mother, Helen.

“My father, Harry Jenkins, was a gastroenterologist who taught at Creighton Medical School and mother went to nursing school,” says the Rev. Jenkins.  “Dad died in 2004,” shortly after his son’s election as Notre Dame’s president. “Our parish was St. Pius X and then St. Leo’s. My mother still lives in the family home.”

“Omaha is still very important to him,” says Tom Jenkins. “Even though he has another family [the priests], he’s very interested in coming back here and spending time with Mom and our family. He’s humble that way. Genuine.”

Returning to the city that formed his Catholic faith and to the family that molded him as a man seems to agree with Jenkins. Laughter and a relaxed mood punctuated the wedding weekend.

“John has always been kind of quiet and calm,” Tom says. “People don’t realize he’s also a lot of fun and quick to laugh. He’ll be the first one to share a joke or a story.”

The Holy Cross priest’s sense of humor has served him well since assuming the helm of the 12,000-student campus near South Bend, Indiana, a decade ago. Under his leadership, Notre Dame’s reputation as an academically elite undergraduate program and a top research school has ballooned, its endowment has tripled to $10 billion, and the Fighting Irish football team has fought its way back into the conversation.

As president, how does he balance the decidedly secular issues of academics and research with the school’s Catholic identity?

“Notre Dame is a place of faith,” Jenkins says. “That gives it a distinctive role in being a place of conversation, of inquiry that can take up issues of faith and morality in ways that are powerful. We have a set of Catholic principles that guide our educational efforts as well as our work in the world.”

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, some would argue, has hit turbulent times.

Like many Catholic institutions, including Creighton University, Notre Dame has recently drawn fire for its response to hot-button social issues—granting employee marriage benefits to same sex couples, for example. Jenkins has absorbed the blows with grace, for beneath his quiet, thoughtful demeanor lies the steeliness of a man with a keen sense of identity and mission. As Creighton theology professor Dr. Eileen Burke-Sullivan points out, “Anyone who actually operates on behalf of the kingdom of God knows that you draw criticism on yourself. I don’t think any religious leader can have thin skin.”

Jenkins2Jenkins’ quick wit, his seeming ease with everyone he meets, and his ability to listen and compromise no doubt spring from a childhood surrounded by what can politely be described as controlled chaos.

“We had 12 kids in our family, six boys and six girls,” says Jenkins, who checks in at number three in the lineup. “I’m very close to my brothers and sisters.”

In 1966, when Jenkins was 12, the family moved from 75th and Blondo to a new, seven-bedroom home in a lively Catholic neighborhood on 100th Street, then the western edge of the city.

“I would say on our block alone, there were about 50 kids,” says Tom, an attorney. “We never had any trouble getting baseball teams together. We usually had 11 to a side.”

The Kizers lived next door and contributed nine children to the mayhem.

“There was something different about John, something special, even when we were young,” muses John Kizer, the Rev. Jenkins’ best friend growing up. “He was a big thinker and was always looking for a place to get quiet time, which was tough in a household of 12 kids.”

The friendship between the two Johns extended all through St. Pius X grade school and Creighton Prep, where Jenkins ranked high on the popularity meter. His classmates voted him Prom King senior year.

“I got a lot from Creighton Prep,” says Jenkins, whose middle name, Ignatius, honors the founder of the Jesuit order. “I’m very grateful to my Jesuit friends.”

Jenkins’ popularity at Prep benefited from his athletic abilities. He was one of the top swimmers in the state and played on the school’s inaugural soccer team, following his parents’ example of mental discipline and physical activity.

“Our dad entered the Hawaii Ironman contest when he was 58,” Tom marvels. “And his triathlon buddies dedicated a steel-sculpted bench with depictions of bike riders along [Omaha’s] Keystone Trail to him.”

Harry and Helen Jenkins also encouraged each child to follow their heart, opening the door for the third oldest to explore his desire to contribute to society. That desire became evident during a backpacking trip through Europe with Kizer the summer between their freshman and sophomore years in college.

“We had two different sets of interests,” laughs Kizer, president and chairman of Central States Indemnity Co. of Omaha. “I had the beaches of Saint-Tropez and [golf’s] Old Course at Saint Andrews on my list. John was more interested in Dachau [Concentration Camp] outside Munich, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We spent lots of time in Rome.”

Following his continental adventure, Jenkins decided to join Tom at Notre Dame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1976, followed by a master’s degree in the same subject.

“Notre Dame gave me a superb education, a very vibrant and robust intellectual life, and an ability to combine that with a serious faith,” Jenkins says. “I had questions about my life and what I should do with it. That eventually led me to prayer and to the seminary about a year after I graduated.”

“It didn’t surprise me he became a priest and rose through the ranks,” says Kizer. “There are certain people that, when you meet them, you know they’re a cut above.”

Jenkins’ decision to join Notre Dame’s founding community of priests necessitated a separation from his Omaha family and, according to a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, “a difficult breakup with his [Omaha] girlfriend.” After receiving his doctorate from Oxford, Jenkins returned to his alma mater in 1990 as a professor of philosophy.

Since he first stepped onto what is called the campus “God Quad” in 1973 as a sophomore transfer student from Creighton University, Jenkins’ goal has been to serve the school he loves in whatever capacity it needs. That he would reach the highest level of service makes for an impressive Omaha success story, but not an isolated one.

Jenkins joins several current, high-profile priests with doctorate degrees who call the Omaha area home. William Leahy, S.J., 67, the president of Boston College, was born in Omaha and raised across the Missouri in Imogene, Iowa. Leahy still has family here. Daniel Hendrickson, S.J., 45, is Creighton University’s new president. He calls Fremont home and attended Mount Michael Benedictine High School in Elkhorn. His identical twin, the Rev. Scott Hendrickson, also a Jesuit, teaches at Loyola Chicago. Archbishop Blase Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch), 66, was recently appointed by Pope Francis to head Chicago’s archdiocese. He grew up in ethnically rich South Omaha. He and Jenkins first met in Rome during the aforementioned backpacking trip and remain friends.

Omaha produces not only heavy hitters in the Catholic Church, but heady intellects as well.

“Omaha has always had an excellent system of Catholic schools,” Jenkins says. “It had a big impact on me, and I’m sure it had a big impact on Bishop Cupich. It’s a vibrant Catholic community.”

“Historically, we have had an unusually high Catholic population,” explains Dr. Burke-Sullivan. Much of that can be traced to the European and Eastern European immigrants who came to work in South Omaha’s meat packing plants. “They brought with them a rich, progressive Catholicism, plus the belief that hard work and cooperation with others is the norm.” She says Omaha’s Jesuit and Benedictine communities influence intellectual pursuit. “And I would not discount the importance of the excellently educated orders of religious women who set up the lower school system.”

The belief in civil, open discourse characterizes much of President Jenkins’ response to a seismic shift in this country’s social thinking. Unlike many of their brethren, neither Archbishop Cupich nor Jenkins condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Cupich, in a letter, pointed out the high court had redefined civil marriage, with no bearing on the Catholic sacrament. He cautioned against discrimination—a sentiment echoed by Jenkins.

“It’s incumbent on us to articulate our views clearly and in a persuasive way, but at the same time to respect those who disagree,” he says. “That’s one of the great challenges: to nurture a more healthy exchange of ideas.”

That “exchange of ideas” turned testy in 2009 when Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to speak at graduation. Because of Obama’s stance on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, his presence at the school caused a furor. Some Catholic bloggers and newsletter editors hurled verbal vitriol at Jenkins. More than 70 bishops condemned the Obama appearance, calling it a “scandalous decision,” as did many faculty members, students, alums, and activists. The emails, letters, and phone calls piled up and piled on.

“The backlash was greater than I expected,” admits Jenkins, who went on to explain the tradition behind the invitation. “From the very beginning, Notre Dame has always invited newly elected presidents to come and receive an honorary degree; just about every one, except for Johnson and Nixon in the ‘60s,” which corresponds to campus unrest during the Vietnam War. “I thought it was particularly important to invite the first African American president, but for a number of reasons it created a tense controversy in the Catholic community and the wider world,” he says in a calm, measured manner.

Through tough times and good, Jenkins “relies on his faith to get him through and uses it for guidance,” says his brother, Tom.

Jenkins’ quiet time, once found in the corner of a basement on 100th Street in Omaha, has moved to a chapel on the Notre Dame campus. His apartment in the Graduate Student Residence also provides solitude.

Known on campus as “Father John” or simply “JJ,” Jenkins, who’ll turn 62 in December, looks fit, lean, and youthful. He works out in the gym and takes daily walks. Exercise, he says, continues to be “an effective stress reliever.”

The recent success of the school’s storied football team also helps relieve stress. When asked if he has gotten over last season’s offensive pass interference call that cost the Fighting Irish the game against Florida State, the priest chuckles and—ever the tactful diplomat— refuses to criticize “the higher power” that is a referee.

“We were kind of thin and had some injuries, but that’s football, as anyone from Nebraska knows.” Jenkins takes pride in a great football team and in the fact the players are also serious students. “The most important thing I tell them is, ‘national championships are great, but get a degree.’”

Amen to that.