The dismissal of a "clergy malpractice" suit brought by relatives of a man who committed suicide after pastoral counseling is a deliverance from legal interference in spiritual matters, church leaders said.
The man's father, however, called the state Supreme Court ruling "a disaster."The court ruled Wednesday that non-professional counselors have no legal duty to refer a patient to a psychiatrist or take any other steps to prevent suicide.
"Neither the Legislature nor the courts have ever imposed a legal obligation on persons to take affirmative steps to prevent the suicide of one who is not under the care of a physician in a hospital," said the opinion by Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas.
Imposing legal responsibilities on pastoral counselors would also be "impractical, and quite possibly unconstitutional," because those duties "would necessarily be intertwined with the religious philosophy of the particular denomination," Lucas said.
"This is not a very good day for us," said Walter Nally, whose 24-year-old son, Kenneth, killed himself in April 1979 with a shotgun blast. "In fact, it is a disaster."
Eight years ago, Nally and his wife, Maria, sued Grace Community Church of the Valley for $1 million over their son's death in what experts in church-state relations said was the first "clergy malpractice" suit filed in the United States. The 10,000-member church in Sun Valley is the largest Protestant church in Los Angeles County.
The Nallys' lawsuit said the pastors who counseled their son knew he was suicidal and should have sent him to a psychiatrist. The parents also said the church's method of counseling stressed sin and guilt, worsened his depression and helped cause his death.