‘Clergy Malpractice’ Prime Issue in Trial Over Son’s Suicide

Times Staff Writer

The day that Walter Nally has waited, fought and prayed for finally has arrived.

Today, Nally and his family will gather in a Burbank hotel conference room along with 150 strangers, 12 of whom eventually will help determine whether the teachings of a Sun Valley church may have led his emotionally disturbed son to commit suicide in April, 1979.

The jury selection at the Burbank Holiday Inn today is the first phase of what is expected to be a long and complex trial stemming from a “clergy malpractice” lawsuit Nally filed against Grace Community Church of the Valley, where his son, 24-year-old Kenneth, was an active member. Nally claims Kenneth was counseled by ministers at the church that suicide was an acceptable answer to his problems.


Far-Reaching Effects

The roller-coaster history of the controversial suit, filed in March, 1980, has included numerous delays, hearings, appeals and reversals during the past five years. Although the California Supreme Court said the case should not automatically set a precedent, both sides in the issue believe the outcome will have far-reaching effects on the responsibility and accountability of the clergy.

“This is a very important trial with important issues,” said Ed Barker, the attorney representing the Nally family. “We’re talking about the social issues and accountability of a clergyman. Other professions have licensing requirements to govern and control them, but there are none for the clergy. We’re just glad it’s finally going to trial, and we’re very confident.”

Grace Community Church ministers have denied any wrongdoing or responsibility in Kenneth Nally’s death, and on the eve of jury selection, the church’s attorney, David Cooksey, maintains that the lawsuit should never have come to trial.

“This is a case that is peculiar on its facts, and I feel it’s going to open a legal Pandora’s box if you start questioning the accuracy of one’s religious beliefs,” Cooksey said. “I’m very surprised that this has gone as far as it has. But I still believe the case will be a sure winner for the church, and we will prove we are not guilty of any wrongdoing.”

Church Reputation at Stake

At stake in the trial is the reputation of the traditional, evangelical and fundamentalist Grace Community Church, which claims to have the largest Protestant congregation in Los Angeles County. The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. John F. MacArthur, one of the main defendants in the suit, and 34 other pastors preside over a series of Sunday services which typically attract 10,000 worshipers from all over the county, MacArthur said.

Kenneth Nally, a UCLA graduate who had been raised in a Catholic household and taught in Catholic schools, had made the church the center of his life, according to court documents. Walter Nally said his son grew further away from his family as his involvement with the church increased.

The Nallys said Kenneth’s emotional problems were severe, and he tried to commit suicide several times. They claim church officials were aware of the suicide attempts, but failed to refer him to professional counselors and inform the family.

Church officials contend that a pastor’s counsel is confidential and that he has no obligation to confide in the family. Additionally, the church argues that it did try to get Kenneth to seek professional help and had urged his family to commit him to a psychiatric hospital. They said the family did not heed the church’s advice.

In April, 1979, Kenneth Nally visited a friend’s apartment in Burbank, put a shotgun to his head and killed himself.

Convinced that their son was counseled by the church into believing that suicide was an acceptable practice, the family filed suit against Grace Community Church in March, 1980, seeking unspecified damages.

The suit was dismissed in 1981 by Burbank Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Murphy, who concluded that the issues of fact in the case were not issues which could be determined in court.

However, a state Court of Appeal decision June 28 overturned the ruling and ordered the matter to court.

Case Believed Unique

Although the church appealed to the California Supreme Court, the court refused to review the case. The suit is believed to be the first such clergy malpractice lawsuit to be heard in the nation.

Two months ago, Murphy withdrew from hearing the case, turning it over to Presiding Judge Joseph Kalin. “I excused myself as a question of conscience and to protect the integrity of the court,” Murphy said. “The court has to be fair. I think the appeal court’s decision was wrong. I don’t think a civil court can pass judgment on religious doctrine.”

Kalin was later transferred from Burbank to Glendale Superior Court, where the case will be heard.

In a tape recording expected to be introduced as evidence in the trial, Grace Pastor Richard A. Thomson is cited by the family as telling church counselors: “Suicide is one of the ways that the Lord takes home a disobedient believer . . . and suicide for the believer is the Lord saying, ‘OK, come on home. Can’t use you anymore on earth.’ ”

MacArthur said that Thomson’s recording was made 18 months after Kenneth’s death, and that the quote was taken out of context. He claimed that Thomson was telling students that people who are suicidal may make irrational statements to rationalize their desire to kill themselves, and that spiritual counselors should be prepared to deal with those kinds of statements.

Father Helps Attorney

During the past few weeks, Walter Nally, a retired accountant, has been keeping himself occupied by assisting his attorney, running errands and handling paper work. “He’s been one of my biggest helps,” said Barker. “He’s ready to go and try the case. He feels it’s now or never. This is his life. This is what he cares about.”

Jury selection, which is being held at the Holiday Inn because a courtroom would be too small, is expected to reflect the complexity of the case and the different approaches of the two attorneys. While Barker said he will not steer away from asking jurors questions about religion, defense attorney Cooksey said he does not intend to introduce religion at this point.

“I feel a juror has a right to keep his opinion to himself, and asking him his opinion about religion is an invasion of privacy to some extent,” Cooksey said. “I’m going to ask them about their feelings on psychiatry, whether they’ve had a suicide in the family, whether they’ve heard of Grace Community Church.”

Barker said he intends to find out “everything I can about a potential juror. This is going to be a long, hard selection, and the judge will ask questions in the more sensitive areas such as religion. But I want to know a juror’s feelings about everything, including religion.”

The trial is expected to last four to eight weeks.