Internal investigation finds priest sexually harassed student

Before Father Denis Heames was removed from St. Mary's University Parish, the Central Michigan University student he was having an affair with told a faculty member about their relationship.

That conversation launched a sexual harassment investigation through the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity (OCRIE).

Though the office states it “endeavors to issue a determination” within 60 days of formally launching an investigation, its look into Heames’ behavior began in August 2015 and was completed last month.

Heames was named in a lawsuit filed Jan. 14 in Isabella County Court. Heames, along with St. Mary's, the Diocese of Saginaw and his spiritual director, Trudy McCaffrey, are accused of battery, defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligent supervision and retention.

Based on what they know about the case, Suvivors Network of those Abused by Priests suspects Heames has behaved similarly with others.

DeWitt senior Megan Winans is asking the Isabella County Court to consider whether she was harmed by Heames during her time as a parishioner and "media intern" at the church from 2012 to 2014.

The OCRIE investigation found that Heames engaged in sexual harassment through his involvement in the registered student organization Reach Out, which coordinates events for St. Mary's.

The university investigated the complaint even though Heames is not employed by CMU. Though it sits in the middle of campus, St. Mary's is on property owned by the church. 

Central Michigan Life obtained a copy of CMU's investigation. 

Heames was contacted by Central Michigan Life in June to discuss his removal from St. Mary's. He said he did not want to provide comment. He was contacted again Feb. 9 for comment and did not respond. 


Every employee at CMU is a “responsible employee” under the university's sexual misconduct policy. This means employees must report sexual misconduct complaints they are made aware of.

Two faculty members reported Heames. Both faculty members raised concerns about Heames' involvement with university students and employees.

The OCRIE investigation specifically focused on whether Heames' actions toward Winans, with respect to her involvement in Reach Out, constituted sexual exploitation or harassment as defined by university policy.

Winans' testimony

According to the report, Winans told the OCRIE investigator that she and Heames agreed to meet weekly for "spiritual counseling." She said she shared her "deepest, darkest" insecurities with Heames during these sessions.

Because of her numerous, ongoing counseling sessions with Heames, Winans said he had a "playbook" for how to manipulate her.

Winans also told the OCRIE investigator:

  • In November 2012, the two went to see the movie “Skyfall.” Heames held her hand during the movie. The two shared a kiss outside the movie theater.
  • The following night Winans said Heames "showed up" at a bar she was at, asking for a ride home. Heames instructed her to drop her friend off first. The two kissed again when they were alone.
    Winans was still attending weekly counseling meetings with Heames.
  • Heames declined to talk to her about their relationship while they were at the church. He invited her on an overnight stay at the Saginaw home of his spiritual director, Trudy McCaffrey. During their trip, Winans said Heames told her he was "falling for her," and they were sexually intimate. They often visited McCaffrey's home and sometimes met at hotels.
  • In summer 2013, Heames asked her to leave her summer job early to work in Mount Pleasant. 
    Winans approached Heames about becoming a media intern for St. Mary's. As part of her internship, Winans said she would often attend meetings Heames had with university administrators. She also helped promote church and Reach Out events.
    Heames told her the internship was a way the two could "hide in the open." The Diocese paid her during her employment at the church.
  • In August 2013, Heames attended the University of Michigan vs. CMU football game in Ann Arbor. According to the OCRIE investigation, Winans was given press credentials to attend the game with Heames. The priest claimed she was a photographer for Faith magazine. Winans and Heames traveled with the team and stayed in separate hotel rooms as guests of the Athletics Department.
    Athletics Director of Communication Rob Wyman told Central Michigan Life Heames worked as a "character coach" for the CMU football team, working mainly with former head coach Dan Enos. The former coach personally invited Heames as one of his guests to travel with the team.
    "(Character coaches) are someone that works with our student-athletes to help them become better people," Wyman said. "It's always good to bring people in with diverse background to help with that training. We have a couple that have religious affiliations."
  • In spring 2014, Winans said parishioners began to scrutinize her relationship with the priest. During this time, Heames often talked about the couple's future. Winans believed Heames was going to leave the priesthood.
    Heames and Winans travelled together on a St. Mary's-sponsored trip to Rome for the canonization of Popes John XIII and John Paul II. Heames became "cold" toward her during the trip and said they had to "pretend to break up."
  • After their return to Mount Pleasant, Heames ended their relationship. She said the last time they were intimate was around January 2015.
  • Heames said because their relationship ended, so did Winans' position with the church. Because there was no longer a relationship between them, there was nothing that needed to be hidden.
    In fall 2015, Winans said Heames told her she could not participate in Reach Out. She was removed from the group's Facebook page, and stopped receiving emails. When she approached Heames about organizing an event, Winans said, he told her to "be a student" and "step away from leadership activities."

Heames' response

After receiving the complaint about Heames, the university reached out to the priest through the Saginaw Diocese. However, he did not attend his scheduled interview with a Office of Civil Rights investigator. In October, his counsel told the university that the priest would not be participating in the investigation. Last month, Heames requested an overview of the investigation and summaries of all evidence and testimony.

On Jan. 5, Heames denied "any allegations of wrongdoing placed against him."

He questioned "whether a relationship between two adults led to one's being impacted unfairly with the university or in relation to university activities, such as the RSO Reach Out.” He also noted there were no documents or witness testimony he reviewed which supported Winans' claims.

According to the report, Heames also posed the question to the investigator if “someone is exploiting the system in order to harass another individual.”

Taking into account her statement and the documentary evidence collected, the OCRIE investigator determined Heames’ conduct was not sexual exploitation, but “created an objectively hostile environment” for Winans.

“Therefore, OCRIE concludes, by a preponderance of the evidence that (Heames) violated the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy,” the report states.

The department offered two recommendations:

  • Heames should have no future involvement with university departments such as Athletics and no involvement with registered student organizations.
  • The Office of Student Activities and Involvement offer training for registered student organization advisors regarding sexual misconduct, with an emphasis on sexual harassment.

  • Central Michigan Life


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