On March 11, 1979 Kenneth Nally took an overdose of the antidepressant drug Elavil and was rushed to the San Fernando Valley’s Verdugo Hills Hospital, where his stomach was pumped. After recovering from the attempt to take his own life, the 24-year-old UCLA graduate, a bright but severely troubled young man, went to stay with the Rev. John MacArthur, pastor of the Grace Community Church, a fundamentalist ministry that numbered Nally among its 20,000 members. When the MacArthurs left on a trip to Scotland, the young proselyte returned to his parents’ Roman Catholic home in the foothills of the Valley. After a family argument—one that turned, as they usually did, on religion—Kenneth went to a friend’s apartment in Burbank. There, on April 1, he took a shotgun off the wall, walked into a closet and killed himself.
Kenneth Nally found release from his demons; yet his death continues to haunt and agitate those who loved and advised him. In an unprecedented trial now entering its third week in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Kenneth’s parents, Walter and Maria Nally, are suing the church and four of its pastors, John MacArthur, Duane Rea, Rich Thomson and Lynn Cory, for “clergyman malpractice.” The suit charges that the defendants knew young Nally needed professional psychiatric care but actively dissuaded him from seeking it. In addition it is claimed that Nally’s turmoil was worsened by the religious guidance he received—guidance that “exacerbated Kenneth Nally’s preexisting feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression” and characterized suicide as a legitimate remedy for an unsuccessful life.
When the case was first filed in 1980, church attorney Samuel Ericsson, once a friend and role model to Kenneth, mounted a Constitutional defense. He argued that the church’s counseling program was inextricably woven into its doctrines of faith and thereby protected by the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. The judge dismissed the case, but an appeals court overruled him, basing its decision in part on a tape of pastor Rich Thomson’s Bible class 18 months after Kenneth’s suicide. In it the preacher says: “Suicide is one of the ways that the Lord takes home a disobedient believer…Suicide for a believer is the Lord saying, ‘Okay, come on home. Can’t use you anymore on earth. If you’re not going to deal with those things in your life, come on home.’ ” (The judge has ruled that the tape cannot be introduced as evidence.)
At the trial, MacArthur, 45, is seeking to clarify his church’s teaching on suicide. “It’s not only a sin, it’s illegal,” he says. “But we teach that even if a believer takes his own life, the Lord will still receive him into His presence.”
Overshadowing the trial is the tragic specter of Kenneth Nally and the collective responsibility of all who saw his young life coming apart. Until he went to UCLA in the mid-’70s, Kenneth was a practicing Catholic. He was smart, fifth in his high school class of 200. A roommate at UCLA introduced him to evangelical Christianity and he joined Grace Community Church. His father disapproved strongly, and he may have been further antagonized by what he saw as the church’s anti-Catholicism and its intervention in his family life. According to court testimony by Maria Nally, Kenneth’s Japanese-born mother, the younger Nally took her to the church for counseling in 1977 to deal with her distress over her husband’s affair with another woman.
In early 1978 Ken Nally’s conflicts with his father and other emotional problems led him to seek help from Grace ministers. His depression seemed to deepen in December of that year after he broke up with a girlfriend. In February 1979 he told his mother that he couldn’t cope. Maria sent him to a doctor, who prescribed the Elavil he used in his earlier suicide try.
Later the doctor and his ministers say they advised him to seek professional help, but even in the final stages of his downward spiral, Kenneth was disdainful of psychiatrists. Kenneth insisted he could only be helped by a fundamentalist Christian, and a week before his suicide he called Pastor Duane Rea, his mentor and a minister at the church. Rea remembers he was trimming trees; at that point, he says, he didn’t want to interfere with Kenneth’s doctors. He invited the young man over only to socialize, not for counseling.
Two weeks later Rea conducted Kenneth Nally’s funeral, laying his remains in a cemetery plot chosen by the church. Walter and Maria Nally felt a growing sense of disquiet and eventually had Ken’s body disinterred and buried in a Catholic cemetery. “I decided I would bring him back home,” his father explains, “to those who love him.”