Family of Michigan Politician Accused of Rape Ran ‘Controlling,’ ‘Cult-Like’ Church School
Ex-students tell The Daily Beast that the church school where Lee Chatfield’s sister-in-law says he raped her as her teacher featured spankings, forced chores, and obedient women.
Last week, a Michigan woman came forward to accuse her brother-in-law, the state’s former speaker of the House of Representatives, of sexually abusing her when she was his teenage student at a private Baptist school run by his family.
Former students now tell The Daily Beast that the family’s school was a “cult-like” institution where spanking and forced chores kept students in line, where women were trained to be subservient to men, and where at least one former student had to publicly apologize to the congregation for accusing a boy of rape.
Last week, Rebekah Chatfield, 26, told nonprofit news outlet Bridge Michigan that her husband’s brother, former politician Lee Chatfield, began abusing her around 2010, when she was 15 or 16, and that the Republican former lawmaker continued to groom and rape her until 2021. (Mary Chartier, a lawyer for 33-year-old Lee, denied Rebekah’s allegations and claimed they had a consensual “years-long adult relationship,” which Chartier described as one of several of Lee’s extramarital affairs.)
Rebekah said she didn’t tell anyone about the assaults because she feared a backlash from her tiny Cheboygan County religious community, which revolved around Lee and his family, who’d become the center of her universe. Lee’s father, Pastor Rusty Chatfield, had helmed the church since 1983 and is the school’s principal and history teacher, while Lee’s wife, Stephanie, is an elementary school teacher. Lee was a soccer coach and teacher until he was elected to state government in 2014. “They preach at the pulpit that the men are always right, the women have no say,” Rebekah told Bridge, adding that female church members were expected to marry young, have kids, and obey male relatives.
She also claimed the Burt Lake church and school—the Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church and Northern Michigan Christian Academy (NMCA)—imparted a distrust of outsiders. “My whole world was the Chatfield family. So if I told (the Chatfields), that would, that would ruin everything,” Rebekah added. “I couldn’t see what would happen past then. I didn’t know there was an option to report. I didn’t know there were options for therapy.”
But Rebekah isn’t alone in her views of the rural, tightly knit school, where a graduating class can have just a dozen people. Several former students told The Daily Beast that while they didn’t observe any sexual misconduct at the school, they felt the academy was “controlling,” “cult-like,” and fostering a repressive environment for young women.
“NMCA is very closed-minded and controlling. You must believe as they say, dress as they say, and obey as they say. You are not to question the authority or have any ideas outside of theirs,” said one former student, who asked to remain anonymous. “Men are also at the top of the food chain and women must silently follow. You are not to have opinions as a female, and if you speak there will be consequences.”
The former pupil said that the idea that women must be subservient was strongly implied within the congregation and school: “Meaning you would see a husband and wife talking, and if the wife spoke up to give her thoughts she would be told to hush, she would then stand quietly behind the man until she was told to leave or speak.”
“The control and manipulation they have is strong, you believe you have no escape and can only continue in their path,” the person told The Daily Beast. “They will do anything to keep their path (the school) going no matter the consequences.”
Reached by The Daily Beast on Thursday, Rusty Chatfield declined to comment on Rebekah’s, or anyone else’s, characterization of his organization.
“The allegations are false,” the elder Chatfield said. “I will have no other comment.”
Still, Rusty appeared to lash out at the rape accusations against Lee, who last year seemed to be mulling a run for governor, in a recent sermon. “We’re in the spotlight,” Rusty fumed, adding, “The enemy, he wants to distract us from the work of God.” He went on to say: “You can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, on the internet or whatever… eventually truth will come forward.” Rusty continued, “What they were saying here, there was a measure of truth. I like to say there was one-third truth.”
At the pulpit, Rusty crossed his arms, nodded his head, and in a timbre reminiscent of the actor Wallace Shawn, declared, “We’re not going to flee.”
“We’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing,” Rusty sputtered. “Our church, nothing. Nothing. We have done nothing wrong. We can’t let false accusations stop us from doing the work of God.”
Michigan State Police and the Lansing Police Department began investigating Rebekah’s rape allegations last month, when she filed a police report with the latter agency.
Lee and his father are no strangers to press attention. Last year, Lee resigned from the economic development agency Southwest Michigan First days after starting the job after businesses and community members complained about his track record of opposing LGBTQ protections in the state Legislature. Chatfield also flew to D.C. to meet then-President Donald Trump in November 2020, as Trump spread rumors of voter fraud in Michigan.
As COVID ravaged the state in May 2020, Rusty was among three pastors to file a lawsuit against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. The case was quickly dropped after Whitmer made an exception for religious worship, but that fall, Rusty spoke at a rally against the governor’s coronavirus measures. The protest, according to reports, was referred to as “Let MI People Go.”
Since her accusations went public on Jan. 6, Rebekah’s lawyers demanded the Chatfields’ school and church preserve records for a potential lawsuit, and counsel for the Michigan House of Representatives ordered lawmakers and staff to secure documents relating to Lee’s conduct while he was in office from 2015 through 2020.
Rebekah’s lawyer, Jamie White, who has represented victims of convicted child molester and former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, told The Daily Beast he suspects there will also be an “ongoing investigation into [Lee’s] behavior at the Capitol.”
White said his law firm’s investigator is looking into Lee’s “behavior associated with children” and whether he misused government funds. The attorney also referred to comments made by Aaron Chatfield, Lee’s brother and Rebekah’s husband, in the Bridge article. Aaron said he worked as Lee’s driver in Lansing and was tasked with taking his brother to strip clubs or trysts with women. (It should be noted Aaron also said he fully supports his wife and had been suspicious for years of how Lee behaved toward her.)
“We believe, based on our investigation, that there have been other problems in this church that have been squashed by Mr. Chatfield’s father through various means and we’re going to continue to explore all of that,” White said. “But right now we’re trying to wrap our arms around Rebekah and make sure she’s got the tools to get through this.”
Asked whether he believed Rebekah was the only person Lee allegedly targeted, White answered, “I believe that there are others.”
The former student who spoke with The Daily Beast, and who attended the academy for years, described Rebekah as “a woman of character and integrity” who “has never given me a reason to question her actions or morals.” They added, “My heart breaks for Rebekah. She has been in or around the Chatfield family since she was 14 years old and my initial reaction was ‘it doesn’t surprise me.’ What surprised me was that she came forward after a lifetime of being instilled to stay quiet and ‘know your place.’ I stand behind her as I grew up with the NMCA beliefs and know the fear she must be feeling for coming forward.”
While the graduate didn’t observe anything inappropriate with Lee and his students, they said he was “a little too friendly” and sometimes acted like more of a classmate than a teacher, entering into conversations about who liked who at school and giving his opinion. He told students he’d give them extra credit on a test if they followed him on Twitter, where in 2013 students posted, “@LeeChatfield= best teacher ever! What teacher starts a twitter contest just to give away extra credit? Follow me to support him! #Awesome.” Lee also enlisted students to create posters, handouts, and campaign ideas for his run for the Michigan Legislature.
The former student said they left the school because, from their family’s perspective, it began to focus more on Lee’s political campaign and sports than core classes.
“The Chatfields own NMCA and the church,” they added. “They can come off as controlling, manipulative, and brainwashing. If you can get into the inner circle of the church and school, the Chatfields are so intertwined with both that they will become your entire world unless you are lucky enough to escape.”
The school also came with unusual forms of discipline, allowing teachers to use corporal punishment (unless parents or guardians opted out of the practice) and directing students to write out Bible verses for hours. Students were also expected to do daily chores, including cleaning the school’s bathrooms, replacing toiletries, vacuuming, sweeping, and mopping.
“We also had chores for 15 minutes at the end of the day,” the former student said. “Each student was assigned one thing they had to complete before leaving. If you did not do your chore, you would be punished with a Bible verse of how to not be a sluggard.”
A second former student told The Daily Beast that the church and school environment “was very controlling, and… how much money your family gave to the school or church gave you more liberties than the rest of the kids.”
From their point of view, the school overlooked when some students engaged in drugs, alcohol, and sex, while other pupils were reprimanded in front of the entire school for lesser offenses, like wearing “too short” shorts or going to a movie theater. The student said school staff held an assembly after a female soccer player posted something on social media about the bad behavior of male students at a game; they’d shouted insults at female players on the opposing team. Soon after the player’s vague post, which indicated she was disappointed, high-schoolers were called to the auditorium and told “how horrible it was to post negative things about the school.”
“Boys got in trouble less than girls and could basically say what they wanted because ‘boys will be boys,’” the student told us.
The student described the Chatfields as “decent people” but said “they definitely enjoyed authority and were the more ‘popular’ people.”
Asked about Rebekah’s accusations, the student said, “If it is true I hope they are able to prove it so she doesn’t have a bunch of people thinking badly of her. And also the opposite I guess: If it isn’t true I hope they can prove it.”
Alexis Prince, 27, said she attended NMCA for her junior year of high school but wasn’t a member of the Chatfields’ church. “There was definitely different treatment of the students who did not attend that church,” Prince told The Daily Beast. “Baptist was the only way to go in their minds, and my family was attending a Pentecostal church at the time.”
“In that one year I didn’t have many friends,” Prince said. “Most students who went there were there for years. It was cult-like.”
Prince said she recalled Pastor Rusty making comments about her hair, which was short. “A woman’s glory is her hair, if it’s grown out as a covering,” he allegedly told her. Prince added, “He didn’t say he wanted me to grow it out but pointed out that long hair was better, biblically speaking.”
She said staff were allowed to spank students in the main office and that “they did not hire janitors, so the students had chores.”
“In general, it was preached that men were superior to women. It was basically ingrained into you. No one even really had to say it. It was just a known fact. All the small things added together... You just knew the men were above you. It was taught that women were not supposed to preach, only men,” Prince said.
“Women were helpmates to men,” she said, adding that women were expected to marry young, “especially if you don’t have the self-control to wait to have sex—because sex before marriage is a sin,” and “replenish the earth” by having lots of kids.
“These are the things that were preached regularly,” Prince said.
Prince said that she had one close friend at the school, however, and that the woman died in a car wreck three years ago. While they attended the academy, the friend shared a disturbing story of an alleged sexual assault she had experienced a year or two before Prince arrived at the school in 2011.
“When I heard the story I decided I wasn’t going back to that school for my senior year,” Prince said. “She said that she was in a relationship with an older boy at the school. He raped her in the back of his car. People found out about it. Sex before marriage was a sin. And when she said it was rape, Rusty and the current principal insisted that she was lying and that really, she had tempted him.”
“In order to stay at the school and church, she had to go before the congregation and apologize for her sin and putting this boy in that position,” Prince continued. “She did it. I was appalled, hearing the story. Obviously I was not there and don’t know what is factual. But I heard similar stories from other girls.”
“When I heard Rebekah’s story, I did not doubt any part of it,” Prince added. “It did not surprise me at all. Everything I read that she said... I can feel in my bones that she’s speaking the truth and my heart aches for her.”
But not everyone supports Rebekah or believes her.
Several former classmates and church members told The Daily Beast they were standing by Lee and suspicious of the accusations against him.
“In all my years at NMCA, I never experienced anything like what is being accused,” said one former student, who asked to remain anonymous. “I did not even hear any sort of rumor or information on what is being accused during my time there, either.” The person suggested Rebekah was lying for attention. “Rebekah sells hair care direct and talks about building a brand on Instagram,” the onetime pupil added. “So the more followers she can get the better off her business does. Honestly, her statement just seems off to me. I just don’t believe it.”
Another anonymous student added, “I thought Lee was an amazing teacher and NMCA was an amazing place. If I had the opportunity, I’d send my own kids there! I don’t believe the accusations at all!”
Robert Taylor, the school’s athletic director and an alumnus himself, said he’s known Lee since 2005 and that the ex-politician was his soccer and basketball coach and physical education teacher. “To me, from the outside looking in, it seemed like it was completely out of left field,” he said of Rebekah’s claims. “I’d never heard anything like this at all before.”
“Lee did do some things that, from a moral standpoint, I wouldn’t agree with,” Taylor said, “and he did confess that to the church.”
According to Taylor, before Rebekah’s story was reported in the media, Lee apologized to his church family at a private meeting and announced that he had been unfaithful to his wife. “It’s like your family coming alongside of you,” Taylor said. “It’s hard to have secrets in a family, and he wants people to keep him accountable and walk through this with him, and help him and encourage him and his wife and kids.”
Taylor said Rebekah is “definitely entitled to her opinion” about the environment of the church-school compound but that he disagrees it was controlling or dismissive of women. “I think if that were true, we wouldn’t have females teaching Sunday school and at the church,” he said. “My wife is a teacher as well. I respect her opinion. We do everything collectively.”