OPINION: Coverage of priest situation should matter to community
By Sydney Smith
Central Michigan Life
February 29, 2016
When I first met Fr. Denis Heames in 2015, I was on assignment.
I was tasked with writing a "personality profile." These are usually done on someone who's unique in a community — someone with an interesting attribute, hobby or lifestyle.
He was an actor turned priest.
I went to St. Mary's University Parish to interview him. We walked through the church and into his home, just a couple feet away. He was wearing plainclothes that day in February: jeans and a dark-colored long sleeve shirt. You couldn't tell he was a priest except by looking at his left-hand ring finger, where he wore a silver crucifix-style ring.
His home was modest from what I remember, though I took note of the large windows; I could see students walking to class. Heames made me a cappuccino, and I settled on a black leather armchair for our interview.
The story wasn't the highlight of my journalism career, but Heames stuck with me because of his charisma. I didn't expect that in the future I'd be writing more stories about him.
Looking back, I see why so many have followed him, even as his trustworthiness is called into question.
We didn't speak again until June, when he was placed on leave for what the Diocese of Saginaw called "boundary violations." At this point I didn't know what had occurred, except the dioceses stated it didn't have anything to do with minors.
When I spoke with him on the phone, Heames asked me to keep the situation between those it involved.
From this point, Heames was gone. Since June, the story was in the back of mymind until January, when Megan Winans' filed a lawsuit against him and others.
Public documents can speak for themselves, but they often don't tell the whole story. I had the lawsuit, I had the university's sexual misconduct investigation on Heames. What I didn't, and still don't have, are the voices of everyone involved: those who knew what was happening but chose, and still choose, not to speak.
It is challenging to complete stories when I only have testimony from one side. However, silence can be very telling. Throughout my coverage of the issue between Heames and Winans, I contacted Heames by email and Facebook messenger. I tried to get to him through the Diocese of Saginaw, through where he might be in Pennsylvania and Canada, multiple times.
CMU couldn't get Heames to participate in its investigation, and had to go through the Diocese to send him a copy of its findings, which he requested.
The Diocese declined to comment from the start, on its involvement and the whereabouts of Heames.
So I could only read public documents and relay them to the public. The problem is there's no humanity in documents; unless they looked beyond the surface, readers didn't generally grasp why this situation matters.
Many readers questioned "Why is this news?" Both parties are of age; Heames is 43 and Winans is 25. What's the harm?
The harm is there's a person on campus accused of sexual misconduct. Further, that person is a priest. Even further, he was beloved by his parishioners, who still fight for him. He lived on campus, participated in registered student organization activities and interacted with students all the time.
These questions of relevancy also arose when I used A.W. Richard Sipe as a source.
He appeared in the Boston Globe's 2002 Spotlight coverage, portrayed recently in the movie "Spotlight."
Sipe spent many years as a psychotherapist, studying clergy sexual abuse. He was a priest for 18 years, serving the church as a monk, teacher, parochial assistant and most importantly here, a counselor to priests. After he left the priesthood, he conducted a 25-year study, published in 1990, on the celibacy and sexual behavior of Roman Catholic priests — a study the church tried to bury.
Maybe he seemed biased to CM Life's audience because his expert opinions didn't align with your amateur ones. Sipe has researched this topic for a large portion of his life.
He has seen the patterns. He knows how abusive people operate.
Heames has a lot of followers. I get that. The guy was "the cool priest." It's hard to admit that the people we love sometimes do wrong, especially someone you might have been trained to follow blindly your entire life.
My news stories, and my words here, aren't to bash religion. Faith does a lot of good for a lot of people. If it's taken advantage of, it hurst lot of people, too.
If you're upset with our coverage, you should admit you don't know the full story, either. My job is to tell you the best possible and most complete version of the truth.
That truth doesn't involve silence. In reality, only two people know absolutely what happened here.
And so far, only one side of the story is told, solely through public documents.