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Walter Nally, Who Filed Famous Clergy Malpractice Lawsuit Over Son's Suicide, Dies at 79

After his son committed suicide, Nally and his family filed a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Walter Nally, who gained national attention in the 1980s when he sued four Sun Valley church leaders for negligence in his son’s suicide, died Saturday in Sylmar. He was 79.

Nally died of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage, according to a family member.

After his 24-year-old son, Kenneth, committed suicide in 1979, Nally and his wife, Maria, filed a $1 million lawsuit against four pastoral leaders of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, accusing them of malpractice and negligence.

In the lawsuit, the Nallys accused Rev. John MacArthur and other church leaders of discouraging Kenneth from seeing a psychiatrist, even though they knew of his suicidal tendencies. The allegations of clergy malpractice prompted more than 7,000 churches and religious organizations to join in court papers arguing against the Nallys and the precedent their case could set if ruled in their favor.

The case, which was followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other national news media, was dismissed twice by Superior Court judges, reinstated by the state Court of Appeal, then ultimately rejected by the state Supreme Court in 1988. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to hear the case.

Despite the loss in court, Nally continued to give lectures on religious issues and became a national figure known for speaking out against radical religious beliefs. He was interviewed by Dan Rather, Phil Donahue, Sam Donaldson, Bill O’Reilly, Betty Rollin and featured in People Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Dateline, and 20/20.

The case was also detailed in a book by Mark A. Weitz, Clergy Malpractice in America: Nally v. Grace Community Church of the Valley.

“It may look like Walter Nally lost this case, but the legacy of the case is enduring," Weitz said Sunday in a press release issued by Nally's family. "All churches have clearly changed the way they do things, even if they are not saying so, and it is because of this case.”

MacArthur expressed grief over Walter Nally's death, and over Kenneth's suicide, but also said the church felt vindicated over the final outcome of the lawsuit.

"We, the pastoral staff and flock of Grace Community Church, are deeply saddened to hear of the death of Walter Nally. Mr. Nally’s son, Kenneth, was a cherished friend to several of us before he tragically took his own life in 1979," MacArthur wrote to Patch in an e-mail. "Walter Nally endeavored to find a court or a judge who would declare the church legally responsible for the suicide of his son. After a series of trials and appeals that spanned several years, the California Supreme Court upheld the decision of every lower court that had ever heard the case, ruling that the church had no culpability in Kenneth’s death. Though saddened by the circumstances that led to it, we remain grateful for the high court’s decision—one which set an important legal precedent for church ministries throughout the United States. We can only hope that, in the years since the concluding court case, Walter Nally was settled in his own heart over the issue.  We send our sincere condolences to the remaining members of the Nally family." 

Walter Nally was born in Chicopee Falls, MA, on Aug. 28, 1931. He served in the Korean War as a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman, second class. Wounded in battle in 1951, he was sent to the Yakusa Naval Hospital, where he met his wife. He became the chief financial officer for a company that made computers, but left that job and did not return to work after the lawsuit reached its end.

Nally is survived by his wife, son Walter Nally III, and three grandchildren. He will be interred next to his son Kenneth at the San Fernando Valley Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills.

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