Parishioner is awarded $130,000

The Seattle Times/October 24, 1988
By Carol M. Ostrom

Jurors in a Pierce County trial yesterday awarded $130,000 damages to a parishioner who claimed her minister became involved with her sexually under the guise of a spiritual relationship.

Afterward, the jurors said they hoped the verdict would send a message to the community and to ministers in particular.

"We want the community to see that this can't keep happening - it's got to stop somewhere," said juror Cathy Zurfluh.

The five-woman, seven-man jury was unanimous in finding that Carol Gabrielson, a former member of the Community Chapel Bible Training Center of Tacoma, should collect damages from the Rev. Jack McDonald, former pastor of that church, and the mother church in Burien.

The jurors found that McDonald not only was guilty of negligence as a pastor, he defamed Gabrielson by telling other church members she was lying about their sexual relationship. They rejected Gabrielson's claim, however, that she had been assaulted and falsely imprisoned when church security guards dragged her out of a church service in 1986.

The award to Gabrielson was $200,000, reduced by her "contributory negligence" of 35 percent. The jurors also awarded her former husband, Ira Gabrielson, $20,000, reduced to $17,000 because of his own contributory negligence of 15 percent.

"We didn't feel there was 100 percent accuracy on anybody's part," said juror Mary Barrick. "You're dealing with perceptions - the way they see things is different."

McDonald and his wife Shirley, were not present in the courtroom when the verdict was announced and were not available for comment. Eileen Lawrence, the McDonald's attorney, said the case was a difficult one in that it involved personal beliefs. The McDonalds have filed suit against Gabrielson for malicious prosecution.

Michael Bond, attorney for the church, declined to comment.

Gabrielson, in tears and shaking uncontrollably, said she would have been happy with a $1 award.

"I didn't want this to be done to other people, that was the whole reason I did this," Gabrielson said. "What hurt so bad during the trial was when they tried to portray me as revengeful and trying to get even. That wasn't my heart."

She tried to resolve her guilt and confusion inside the church, Gabrielson said, but church officials refused to listen and then disfellowshipped her - officially cutting her off from friends and support.

Even though intimate, embarrassing details of her life were laid bare by the trial, Gabrielson said she would have done it again.

"It's worth it, if even one person can learn from it," she said. "Knowing the 12 (jurors) agreed, it meant the world to me."

"I think it's a real triumph for justice," said Dan Hannula, Gabrielson's lawyer. "Hpoefully, it's a message to others in positions of authority, particularly pastors, that they're going to be held to a standard in which their behavior is accountable."

The sexual aspect, Hannula said, wasn't the main issue. "What we should have been focusing on, was the pain and the anguish of what this church and this pastor did to my client and the family."

The jury's decision, Hannula said, is important to the community.

"I think people have been afraid to come forward, to accuse a minister," he said. Usually what happens, he said, is that the woman is accused of "taking a man of God and bringing him down."

The "spiritual connections" teaching, a doctrine promulgated by the Rev. Donald Lee Barnett, pastor of Community Chapel and Bible Training Center of Burien, the mother church, has been a dangerous force, Hannula said.

The doctrine encourages church members to have relationships with other members of the church. Critics have charged the doctrine resulted in improper sexual relationships among members of the congregation.

"This thing called spiritual connections hurt a lot of people, not just Carol. I think we're just seeing barely the tip of the iceberg."

Hannula was accused by the church's lawyer during the trial of attempting to put the Chapel members' religious beliefs on trial.

"I didn't want to attack religion. But when certain people take advantage of people's beliefs for their own selfish interests, like Jack McDonald did in this case, then I believe it's inappropriate and I don't believe we can stand for it."

As the jurors left the courtroom yesterday, some stopped to hug Gabrielson, sho stood unsmiling with tears running down her cheeks. Afterward, she said, she didn't know if the award would help put back together her shattered life.

"I feel like there's a lot of damage done to my mind," Gabrielson said. "It's like there's walls in my mind. I feel like I'm in a prison inside my head…I'm trying to figure out how to rebuild my life. I don't know. I'm going to try. I'm going to try."

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