Worshipers at Grace Rejoice Over Ruling

Times Staff Writer

It might well have been Easter, the most joyous of Christian holy days, on Sunday at Grace Community Church of the Valley.

The Sun Valley congregation's 3,500-seat auditorium was filled for both morning services. A full orchestra, featuring brass and percussion instruments, played lively religious tunes. The choir and congregation sang hymns of praise and the Rev. John MacArthur's sermon dealt with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But church members and officials had a different reason for their celebration.

On Thursday, a Glendale Superior Court judge dismissed in mid-trial a landmark "clergy malpractice" lawsuit against their church.

The suit, the first of its kind in the nation, claimed that four of Grace Community's pastors provided incompetent counseling to 24-year-old Kenneth Nally of Tujunga, thus contributing to his 1979 suicide.

"It's what I prayed for," one worshiper said as he stood outside the huge Roscoe Boulevard church.

"We have much to praise the Lord for this week," MacArthur said as he began his message to the congregation, one of the largest in Southern California.

At both services, MacArthur introduced attorney Samuel Ericsson, a church member and one of two lawyers who represented the fundamentalist church during the four-week trial. The congregation burst into loud applause after MacArthur and Ericsson spoke about the court proceedings.

MacArthur credited the clarity of an hour-and-a-half presentation given by Ericsson in court Thursday with convincing Judge Joseph R. Kalin to dismiss the lawsuit. The pastor said the ruling was a "victory for freedom of religion."

Ericsson said the court did not rule that Grace Community Church is perfect, "but that churches and pastors are not accountable to courts for their indiscretions, but to God."

According to Ericsson, 1,000 pages of material supporting the church's position were submitted to the judge along with the request for dismissal. He said Kalin told him he stayed up until 3 a.m. the day of the decision reading the material.

"Thank God for this judge," the attorney said.

Ericsson asked churchgoers to "continue to pray for those who remain hurt." He said Walter and Maria Nally, parents of Kenneth Nally, who filed the lawsuit against the church, have "suffered a great loss" in the death of their son.

"They deserve our prayers," he said.

MacArthur told church members he is grateful to be "free of the burden of this trial." He said the ruling cleared the church and will allow its pastors to "continue to be sensitive to people's needs."

Worshipers were given copies of the judge's decision as they left the services.

Those who lingered to discuss the case characterized it as a victory for Jesus Christ and for religious freedom.

Ruling Called 'God's Will'

Longtime church member Stan Bennett said he views the decision as "God's will."

"It wouldn't matter what we wanted. It would have come out the way Jesus wanted it no matter how we felt about it," Bennett said.

Marie Woods, who said she attends the church regularly but is not a member, said the ruling will benefit churchgoers everywhere.

"If you can't go to your pastor when you have a problem, then where can you go? You have to be able to go to your pastor for counseling."

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