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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan school run by Lee Chatfield’s family didn’t report past abuse claim

Northern Michigan Christian Academy and Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church
The Northern Michigan Christian Academy and Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church in Burt Lake declined comment on allegations by a former student that she was sexually assaulted by a teacher on a mission trip in 2004. A second former teacher, Lee Chatfield, faces legal scrutiny after being accused of assaulting a student more than a decade ago. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

April 11: Records: Police searched Lee Chatfield's family school in sex assault probe
Jan. 31: Michigan Attorney General now involved in Lee Chatfield sex assault probe
Jan. 25: Lee Chatfield raised millions, traveled often. Michigan law kept much secret

BURT LAKE—It’s been 17 years, but a former student at Northern Michigan Christian Academy said she’s still in disbelief about how school administrators reacted when she told them a teacher had sexually assaulted her when she was 13 on a mission trip to Texas.

They made no effort to get her counseling. Little effort to suss out the truth. And failed to alert authorities.  

Instead, said the student, now 30, leaders of the church and school founded by pastor Rusty Chatfield summoned her and her parents to a meeting, where she was forced to sit face-to-face with her alleged assaulter and his wife.

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There, she said, adults in the room pressured her to retract her accusations. 

“They were constant on me,” said the woman, who Bridge Michigan is not naming at her request. “‘You’re lying.’ ‘There's no way this would happen.’ ‘He would never do this.’ ‘He’s a good man of the church.’” She told Bridge Michigan the questioning seemed intended to suggest “I’m just a dumb 13-year-old kid that’s just trying to make stuff up.”

The former student is the second woman to go public with accusations she was sexually assaulted by a teacher while she was a teenage student at the Christian school and church complex near Burt Lake. 

In December, another former student told Bridge that Rusty Chatfield’s son, Lee, began sexually assaulting her when she was a 15 or 16-year-old and Lee was a teacher at the school. That woman, now 26, said the assaults progressed to unwanted intercourse and continued for more than decade, even after she married Lee Chatfield’s younger brother, and Lee entered politics and rose to House speaker in the Michigan Legislature.

Lee Chatfield, through his lawyer, has denied assaulting the student, saying the pair had a years-long, consensual affair when they were both adults. 

Both women, in separate interviews, portrayed the Chatfield-run school and church as a strict, insular, male-centric world in which authority figures were to be obeyed without question. Rebekah Chatfield, Lee’s accuser, told Bridge the Chatfield family was her whole world when she was a teen, making it difficult for her to speak up.  

The woman reporting the 2004 incident said she was smeared as untrustworthy after she told school officials her teacher assaulted her on the mission trip. A later investigation revealed that nobody from the school or affiliated church, Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church, called authorities to report the accusations, as state law requires. 

Failure to report excerpt embedded here

Rusty Chatfield, the superintendent of Northern Michigan Christian Academy and pastor of Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church, would not answer Bridge questions about the 2004 case. 

When contacted by phone Wednesday, he twice answered with “I have no further comments,” then immediately hung up. He did not answer further calls.

Bridge was unable to reach Jon Thompson, the school principal at the time of the alleged 2004 assaults. He has since left the school.   

Police records show that school leaders dismissed the accused teacher several weeks after they first learned of the student’s account.

Bridge is not naming the accused teacher, who is listed as an assistant pastor on another church’s website, because he is a private citizen and it appears he was never charged in the 2004 incident. According to police records, the Cheboygan County prosecutor decided that jurisdiction in the case belonged to authorities in Texas, not Michigan. Authorities in Texas told Bridge they have no record to suggest they pursued charges.

The accused teacher declined to be interviewed, requesting in a text message that Bridge delete his number and “never try to contact me again.”

An alleged assault, then silence 

Since 1975, Michigan law has required school teachers, counselors and administrators, along with members of several other professions, to immediately report suspected child abuse or neglect to government child protection workers. The requirements have been  extended to private schools at least as far back as 1989, 15 years before the alleged assault. Legislators added clergy to the list in 2002, after media coverage exposed the Catholic church’s coverup of child sex abuse perpetrated by clergy.

Officials subject to the law who fail to report suspected abuse can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in prison, and/or a fine of up to $500.

Bridge Michigan does not generally identify people who say they were sexually assaulted without their permission. 

In the allegations against Lee Chatfield, which are now being investigated by Lansing Police and Michigan State Police, Rebekah Chatfield agreed to be identified, in part, she said, to encourage other women to come forward if they found themselves in a similar situation. She is represented by a law firm that said it is cooperating with police and conducting its own investigation with an eye toward filing a possible lawsuit. 

The woman who spoke to Bridge about the 2004 incident, who is not represented by legal counsel, said she didn’t want her name used to protect her privacy. 

In an interview with Bridge, she described what happened on the mission trip, an account she eventually gave police in early 2005, about six weeks after returning home.

The group traveled by van from Michigan to the Texas border with Mexico in November 2004, just before Thanksgiving. In the vehicle were eight students — three girls and five boys — and three adults — the teacher, his wife and Thompson, the school principal.  

The girl told police her teacher began holding her hand and touching her leg on the ride to Texas, then assaulted her multiple times on the trip, which included daily travel back and forth between their Texas accommodations and a church just across the border in Reynosa, Mexico. 

As the van traveled back to Texas after dark one day, the student told police, her teacher was sitting behind her in the van when he reached around her seat and began rubbing her arm. He then put his hand inside her shirt and under her bra, whispering to ask “if it was too much.” She told police she replied yes. After trying to push his hand away and nudging the classmate seated next to her in hopes that she would “see what was going on,” the student laid down to get his hand out of her shirt.

The assaults continued on the ride back to Michigan, she told police. Laying on the van floor while she sat in the adjacent bench seat, she said the teacher began rubbing her leg, then her groin area, eventually stopping after she repeatedly pushed his hand away. He whispered that he loved her and said she had “awesome breasts,” she told police.

During the trip, according to police interview summaries, she confided in a friend and classmate on the trip, who was the principal’s daughter. That friend told her mother, a teacher at the school, and her father, the principal, that she may have seen the teacher’s hand inside the girl’s shirt.

About two weeks after returning from the trip, the girl directly relayed her account to the principal’s wife as well as to an adult family friend. 

Yet the Tuscarora Township Police Department, in Indian River, did not learn of the allegations for more than a month after the trip, and only after the family friend called the Cheboygan Mackinac County Family Independence Agency, police records show. 

screenshot

In a recent interview with Bridge, that family friend, Lois Olson, recalled that school officials and others in the community had been quick to reject the girl’s account.

“It had just gotten dropped, and maybe nobody believed her,” Olson said. A former child protective services worker herself, Olson said she felt duty bound to follow up.

Olson acknowledged the girl was given to exaggerating at times, but said the details the girl shared were so graphic for a 13-year-old growing up in a conservative Christian setting, “I don’t know how she would have gotten that information unless it happened to her.”

Contacted by Bridge this week, Sarah Thompson, now Sarah Avriett, the daughter of the then-principal, stood by the account she gave police in early 2005, in which she described seeing a “lump” under her classmate’s shirt when she looked over. Avriett declined to comment further, noting that the incident happened long ago and expressing dismay at recent negative press about a church and school that she remembers as a wonderful place to grow up.

“It was like a family atmosphere, very good education, but just very laid-back,” Avriett said, adding that accounts depicting the church’s male-dominated culture are overblown. 

“I hate seeing a place that I love and grew up just dragged through the mud.” 

When police questioned Rusty Chatfield and Jon Thompson about their failure to report the allegations, both said they had planned to do so at a later date. By that point, it had been almost three months since Thompson first became aware of some of the allegations, according to police.

Thompson also told police he was unaware the state required school administrators to immediately report suspected abuse. In a separate interview, Rusty Chatfield portrayed the trip as a church matter, not a school matter. He said he also believed the information fell under “the client/pastor rule of confidentiality,” a privilege that would not apply to a girl telling school officials she was sexually assaulted.

client pastor screenshot

In addition, Rusty Chatfield said “he is not a mind reader and is not 100% sure whether these allegations were true,” according to the police report.  

Jon Thompson likewise questioned the student’s “record of honesty at NMCA.” But he  acknowledged his own daughter’s account, and said he’d also seen an “inappropriate” moment between the student and her teacher on the ride home from Texas.

As Thompson drove in the predawn hours, the teacher was lying on the van floor while the student leaned over her seat in his direction. According to police, Thompson said he told the student to “sit up and put her hands in her lap because he felt what was happening was inappropriate.”

Prior warning signs

What happened on the mission trip culminated years of what the former student now sees as grooming behavior by the teacher. The man was her science, math and music teacher at the Christian school, her soccer and volleyball coach, and a prominent figure in the church. 

“He was always there,” the student said, and she was the center of his attention.

During school assignments, she said, he would give her answers. He frequently told her how much he loved and cared about her. He would hold her hand, put his arm around her, play with her hair or carry her on his shoulders.

The woman told Bridge her own father was strict and stoic, so she relished the teacher’s affection.

“I thought it was like a fatherly love, I guess because I didn’t really know any different,” she said.

“The way I was raised, I didn't know nothing about anything,” the former student told Bridge. “I didn't know what prostitution was. I didn't know what drugs were. I didn't know what sexual intercourse was. I didn't know what any of that stuff was. I had no idea.”

But even before the trip, the teacher’s physical interactions with the girl, such as holding hands in church, had begun to raise eyebrows. During questioning by police, the girl’s  mother said the principal had previously “told (the teacher) not to have any contact with (the student) because it did not look appropriate.”

Her parents found out about the assault allegations soon after she confided in the teacher and neighbor, triggering a confrontation after that Sunday’s church services.

At some point that day, police records say, Principal Thompson brought the teacher and his wife to the girl’s house to discuss the allegations. The student later told police she was so disturbed by her teacher’s presence at that meeting “she did not talk to (the teacher) or even look at him.”

police report

While the teacher denied wrongdoing, church leaders decided that day that he should resign, which he did. Police still would not learn of the allegations for almost three weeks, according to police records. 

“The allegations were credible enough not to allow (him) to teach at NMCA,” Rusty Chatfield said, according to a police report.

police report screenshot

The former student told Bridge that Rusty Chatfield encouraged her parents to homeschool her after she reported the incident, and she was pulled from school almost immediately. She was allowed to continue playing sports at NMCA, she said, under the condition that she never speak of the allegations again. 

She was homeschooled for two years, then returned to NMCA to finish high school.

‘What’s the point of telling somebody?’

After interviewing a host of witnesses, police shared their probe with the Cheboygan County Prosecuting Attorney’s office. There, lawyers determined they lacked jurisdiction to file charges over incidents that allegedly took place in Texas and in a moving vehicle at unknown locations, police records show.

The investigation was forwarded to the district attorney in Hidalgo County, Texas, along the Mexican border. 

A Bridge search of a Hidalgo County court database turned up no records indicating prosecutors pursued the investigation further. An investigator with the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office also told Bridge he found no records.

Back in Michigan, Tuscarora Township Police Chief Gordon Temple told Bridge in an email that Rusty Chatfield and school officials were not charged for failing to report the sexual-assault allegations in 2004.

As for the former student, she told Bridge the experience has left scars. 

She said the school’s seeming indifference to her well-being damaged her self-regard and left her vulnerable to future abuse, which she said she concealed from family and friends because her time at Northern Michigan Christian Academy convinced her that speaking up could backfire.

“What's the point of telling somebody if they don't care anyway?” she said.

In the years since, she said, church leaders have occasionally invited her to attend services. She has never taken them up on the offer, she said, though some members of her family remain active in the church. 

“A Christian school allowed this to happen, you know?” she said. “And that's the sad part, because you wouldn't expect something like that.”

GET HELP

Anyone with reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected should immediately call police or the Michigan child welfare agency at 855-444-3911. If you are a victim of domestic abuse or sexual violence, get help by calling the national domestic abuse hotline at 800-799-7233 or chat online here with the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

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