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Clergy-Counsel Lawsuit Recalls ‘Monkey Trial’

Times Staff Writer

Discussion of heaven, hell, demons and Scripture has played such a central role in the nation’s first “clergy malpractice” trial that one attorney in the case has dubbed it “Scopes II.” The trial enters its fourth week today in Glendale Superior Court.

Not since the celebrated Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925 has religious belief undergone such scrutiny in a courtroom, attorneys and religion experts agree.

In the monkey trial, biology teacher John Thomas Scopes was fined $100 for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited any public school from denying the Bible’s version of creation and teaching evolution instead. The law was repealed in 1967.

Pastors’ Counseling

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In the clergy malpractice trial, a jury will be asked to decide whether four pastors at Grace Community Church of the Valley provided incompetent counseling to 24-year-old Kenneth Nally, contributing to his April 1, 1979, suicide. Walter and Maria Nally of Tujunga, the young man’s parents, are seeking unspecified damages in the civil suit.

The Nallys are not challenging the church’s beliefs regarding suicide, which are, in any case, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

But the Nallys allege that because the evangelical Christian church in Sun Valley teaches that anyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as his savior goes to heaven--regardless of future sins, including suicide--pastors have a duty to refer a severely depressed church member to a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist.

‘Saved’ After Suicide

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“Most of the time, the discussion of religious issues would be absolutely irrelevant and the court would not allow it,” Edward Barker, the Nally family’s attorney, said in an interview. “It’s so critical here because (Grace) church teaches that a person who commits suicide goes to heaven.”

One of the church’s pastors testified that Kenneth Nally asked him about suicide and, although he could not recall exactly what he told Nally, the pastor said he believes that people who are “saved” go to heaven, even if they have committed suicide.

Barker said that if the pastors “knew that was on his mind, and they knew he was thinking of suicide, they have the duty to be particularly careful.” Otherwise, he said, the guarantee of salvation could have been interpreted by Nally “as a green light” to kill himself.

Case Would ‘Bleed Religion’

“I cannot remember a case since Scopes where religion is so much a part of the entire proceedings,” said Samuel Ericsson, one of two attorneys for the church. “This is Scopes II. If cases could bleed, this one would bleed religion.”

And although the three attorneys who are trying the case do not pretend that the issue is as significant as the Scopes trial, they say at the very least it could have a far-reaching impact on clergy counseling.

“If pastors have to defend what they did in this case, then there isn’t a clergyman in the country who is safe,” Ericsson said.

‘Chilling Effect’

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Barker said he hopes the case has a “chilling effect” on ministers who counsel mentally disturbed individuals without consulting psychiatrists and psychologists.

“Those people shouldn’t be in business,” Barker said. “There are too many amateur law scholars out there who think the U.S. Constitution gives a pastor automatic authority to do anything he wants, and it doesn’t.”

The case has attracted national media attention and caused the courtroom to overflow on some days. Because the testimony has included numerous recitations of Scripture, and the spectator area is dominated by quiet church members carrying Bibles, the courtroom sometimes takes on the air of a chapel.

Delicate Task

Acknowledging that, the Rev. John MacArthur, the church’s senior pastor and a defendant in the case, remarked last week to a group of reporters: “There is one good thing about this trial. I’ve never seen so many reporters in church.”

Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Kalin, who is presiding over the case, is charged with the delicate task of determining what testimony and evidence should be allowed and what should be barred as either irrelevant, prejudicial or inappropriate under the requirement for the separation of church and state. Most of those rulings have been made outside the presence of jurors and reporters.

Kalin said he could not comment on the unusual nature of the case, fearing that anything he says might influence an appeal. And, because it is nearly impossible to avoid reading or hearing about the trial, he has frequently admonished jurors to disregard anything that is not presented as testimony or evidence in court.

Barker, who specializes in personal-injury lawsuits, is attempting to establish that all pastors who counsel the severely depressed have a duty to inform doctors and family members when suicidal thoughts are expressed in counseling sessions.

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Psychiatrists and psychologists are required by state law to inform family members and doctors if they believe someone is a danger to himself or others. But the church, which has a membership of 5,000 and a Sunday attendance of 7,000 to 10,000, maintains that it has never held itself out to be a clinical counseling facility.

Testimony in the trial has shown that some pastors at the church were aware as far back as 1974 that Nally had periods of depression. Others thought in 1976 and 1977 that Nally might try suicide, and said that in 1978 he expressed an inability to cope. After a failed drug-overdose suicide attempt in mid-March, 1979, Nally told ministers that he was “sorry that he had not succeeded” and pledged to try again.

‘Not a Counseling Center’

The church has acknowledged that pastors did not relay the information to Nally’s doctors or family, but pastors deny that they had any duty to do so.

“We are a church, we are not a counseling center,” pastor MacArthur testified. “We minister people as friends and pastors as you might with your own friends. That’s as formal as it gets.”

Church attorney David Cooksey of Santa Ana said that pastors do not charge a fee for their counseling services.

Case Sparks Interest

“Grace church doesn’t have an ad in the Yellow Pages under psychologists,” Cooksey said in an interview.

The trial has generated a great deal of interest among counseling, religious and civil liberties groups.

Barry W. Lynn, a lawyer and minister with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that, although the ACLU has not taken a position on the case, he personally gets “very nervous thinking that a jury is going to decide the adequacy of someone’s spiritual counseling.”

“Whether it’s wise or not to seek only spiritual counseling is one issue, but once you make the decision to do that, it seems it should be respected.”

However, the Rev. R. Scott Sullender, a psychologist and president of the Pacific region of the American Assn. of Pastoral Counselors, said he believes that ministers should be trained and certified before counseling the emotionally distressed.

The association was formed 11 years ago by a group of ministers who believed that the burgeoning field of pastoral counseling needed regulation, Sullender said. The group has grown to include 2,500 members nationwide from all religious backgrounds.

‘Know Your Limits’

“I think ministers have a responsibility to be as well-trained and as well-educated as they can be,” Sullender said in an interview. “If they are not, they must recognize that and refer a troubled parishioner to someone who is. It’s very important to know your limits.

“The association feels that we can benefit from the disciplines of modern psychiatry and psychology,” Sullender said. “They don’t have all the answers, but they have a few. We, as clergymen, have something unique to present, too. You treat the whole person--the mind, the body and the spirit. We believe that’s the most competent kind of care to offer.”

The Nally case also has spawned numerous seminars on clergy malpractice and an upcoming book, according to H. Newton Malony of the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Malony said he did not want to take a position on the Nally case because there were factual questions as to whether pastors did, in fact, make an attempt to send Nally to mental-health professionals.

He said, however: “I think there are some religious counselors who feel there are only two problems--spiritual and physical, no mental. I think that’s a gross error.”

Barker maintains that the church represented to the community that it had an extensive counseling center competent to handle any emotional problem, ranging from excessive daydreaming to schizophrenia, by consulting the Bible.

Problems ‘Spiritual’ at Root

The church’s 1979 annual report, which was introduced by attorney Barker as evidence, stated: “Grace church is having a vast impact on both the Christian community at large and upon even the unsaved community around us.

“One of the unique characteristics of the counseling at Grace church is that we are convinced that the emotional problems people face are spiritual problems at their roots. It is our goal to find clear biblical passages and specific biblical solutions for each problem.”

The Rev. Duane Rea, a defendant, testified that some emotional problems stem from demonic oppression but that he satisfied himself during counseling sessions with Nally in 1978 that Nally was not suffering from influence by demons.

Sent to Physicians

The Rev. Richard Thomson, another defendant, said some emotional problems also may be organic and would require treatment by a physician.

Nally was sent by Grace pastors to two physicians and a professor of psychology at Biola University, a nondenominational Christian school in La Mirada, which, in turn, referred him to a psychological assistant, testimony has shown. Ministers have acknowledged they did not inform those individuals about Nally’s history of depression or his threats of suicide.

The church often refers members of the congregation to physicians but has no regular contact with licensed psychiatrists or psychologists, head pastor MacArthur testified.

Reluctant to Refer

MacArthur added, however, that he believes mental-health professionals can be effective, and he claims that he encouraged Nally to continue seeing the psychiatrist who had interviewed him in the hospital after his drug overdose. As it turned out, that was Nally’s only session with a psychiatrist, testimony has shown.

Thomson and Rea, however, have testified that they are reluctant to refer people to psychiatrists and psychologists who might undermine their biblical teachings.

To settle for an answer from secular psychiatry or psychology, Thomson testified, “is to settle for less than God’s goal--the spiritual maturity” of the person being counseled.

Threat of Hell Alleged

The Nallys also have alleged that pastors estranged their son from the family by telling him that his parents would burn in hell unless they were “born again” at Grace church.

Walter Nally testified that he believes “all men are capable of being saved--no matter what church they go to.”

That statement caused Ericsson to conclude in an interview: “Mr. Nally is very, very upset about the Protestant view on salvation. When he says, ‘There’s a lot of ways of being saved,’ that’s his view, not the Protestant view on salvation.”

Barker said he expects to rest his case today or Tuesday. At that time, church attorneys plan to argue for a non-suit motion, which, essentially, is a plea to the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence. If the judge rejects the motion, the defense would begin presenting its case Wednesday or Thursday and expects to take four to five days to call its witnesses.

The church has indicated it will counterattack by blaming Nally’s depression on his disdain for his father’s life style and alleged authoritarian rule. Rea testified that Maria Nally came to him in early 1977 for counseling after discovering that her husband was having an affair.

Grace pastors also maintain that the family rejected the advice of several doctors to place their son in a mental institution. But the family argues that if pastors had informed them of their son’s history of mental problems and suicidal thoughts, they would have made the decision to commit him.


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