opinion

Does his dad’s church play a role in alleged Lee Chatfield abuse?

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His church quickly becoming the center of a question whether former Lee Chatfield used his positional power to take advantage sexually of a teenager some 12 years ago, the Rev. Rusty Chatfield spoke opaquely about the issue from the pulpit Sunday.

The minister of what is now Northern Michigan Baptist Church near Burt Lake since 1983 is facing some serious family and public relations problems.

Later, they could be criminal problems. At another point, they’re likely to be a civil court problem.

From what he said Sunday, he’s not going to back down and hide in a corner.

“We’re not going to flee,” said the Rev. Chatfield during his sermon. “We have done nothing wrong. Nothing. There you have it. Our church. Nothing. We have done nothing wrong. We can’t let false accusations stop us from doing the work of God.”

Chatfield essentially runs both the church and the school. He hired his son Lee to be a teacher and be involved in the athletic program. The question may be whether the school’s leadership, through the church, empowered Lee’s conduct and then covered it up under a religious cloak of piety and male superiority.

If a jury or a judge finds the answers to be yes, the church could be on the hook for civil fines. Theoretically, he could force the reverend to shut his doors.

Sister-in-law Rebekah Chatfield is claiming former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, then 21, forced himself on her when she was 15 or 16 and he was a teacher and soccer coach at the church’s school, the Northern Michigan Christian Academy. He continued to take advantage of her sexually for 11 years until it ended this past summer, she is claiming in a police report.

The Lansing Police Department kicked the case to the Michigan State Police in Northern Michigan, where the alleged abuse happened. Is there enough to pursue a criminal case? Maybe, maybe not.

Either way, I’d expect a civil suit to move forward.

The alleged victim has hired an attorney known for doing big sexual assault cases like Larry Nassar at Michigan State and Robert Anderson and the University of Michigan. The public unveiling of her story sounded the call for others who feel they were assaulted by Lee Chatfield.

The reverend told his congregation, “You can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, on the internet or whatever … . Truth will come forward.”

Rebekah Chatfield has her truth that she shared with Bridge Michigan and City Pulse. In a courtroom, she could claim Lee Chatfield’s alleged predatory conduct was not countered by the Chatfield patriarch. Instead, Lee’s conduct was covered up under the guise of faux piety.

It’s not unheard of. Ask Kaitlyn Buss.

The mother of four and communications specialist said religious extremism and the purity culture can be harmful to women. She, herself, a victim of sexual abuse in an evangelical setting, Buss said there are layers of psychological confusion for the victims in situations like this.

“Your identity, to some extent, can get bound up with these experiences, so even as you’re recognizing that it was trauma or abuse … you’re mourning your own identity loss,” Buss said.

This, in turn, is wrapped into your own religious beliefs, forcing you to question whether breaking the cycle of abuse is even the right thing to do.

Up in Northern Michigan, does this perspective penetrate a jury? For religious individuals, do they see Lee Chatfield’s offense as being more or a morale failing? Did he simply fail to resist evil temptations and need saving? Does he need God, now more than ever? Does he need a penance and then, at some point, forgiveness?

Does the church deserve a penance? 

It may be up to survivors like Rebekah to prove that predatory sexual activity wrapped tightly in the cloth of Christianity is still predatory sexual activity.

(Email Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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