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'Clergy Malpractice' Suit May Proceed, Court Rules

October 20, 1987|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

A state Court of Appeal has affirmed its decision to order a new trial in the "clergy malpractice" lawsuit filed by a couple whose son committed suicide after receiving counseling at Grace Community Church.

The court held that church counselors have a " compelling secular interest" to prevent suicide by referring someone who is suicidal to mental-health professionals.

The case involves a $1-million lawsuit filed against the church by Walter and Maria Nally, a Tujunga couple whose 24-year-old son, Kenneth, killed himself with a shotgun in 1979.

A Glendale Superior Court judge dismissed the case during trial in May, 1985, ruling that any judicial effort to establish standards for pastoral counseling would violate the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

But on Sept. 16, the 2nd District Court of Appeal reinstated the lawsuit for trial. Attorneys for the church asked the court to reconsider.

In a ruling issued Friday the court said a counselor's "primary purpose . . . is to diminish the frequency of suicide, not to advance or inhibit any religion." The court also said the opinion "avoids any unnecessary or excessive entanglement with religion."

Among the cases the court cited to support its ruling was a federal court decision involving a student who shot himself to death while in school. The court said the school had been negligent for failing to provide suicide-prevention training to employees.

The Nallys allege that four ministers at the fundamentalist church burdened their son with guilt by attributing his emotional problems to sin and failed to insist he get psychiatric help when they found out he was suicidal.

The Sun Valley church has said Kenneth Nally was seen by eight physicians and mental-health professionals in the last two months of his life. It also has said that counselors personally referred him to two physicians and a professor of psychology.

Attorneys for the church could not be reached Monday.

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