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Cycling community on Cook, Palermo

Photo of Tom Palermo memorial; a bike painted white (colloquially known as a 'ghost bike'), and locked to a street post, surrounded by candles, flowers, and other items of remembrance

Cycling community on Cook, Palermo

Photo by Brian O’Doherty

In the days following the death of bicyclist Tom Palermo, after he was hit by Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, much of the news has focused on Cook, Episcopal Church policies, and perspectives on alcohol in the church.

Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and a cyclist, writes about the poor impression that this focus gives to cyclists and outsiders on her blog.

Her article urges us to focus on the grief and fear that this and other tragedies bring to cyclists and the cycling community.

From the blog:

A man has died. And we have spent the preponderance of our social media conversation talking not about Tom Palermo, but talking about protocols for episcopal elections, proper disclosure of information, and “what this means for the Church.” We say “it is a utter tragedy for all involved,” and then spend 97% of the conversation about the tragedy this is for the Church. Perhaps all this focus on Bishop Cook and the Church is a symptom of the family disease of alcoholism in our family system of the Church. It is good and right and far overdue that we have serious conversation about addiction and recovery in the Church, alcohol in the Church, and how we talk to one another in the Church. But if these are the only conversation we are having, we look and probably are, self-involved.

Cyclists used Facebook to ask that Cook face criminal charges for Palermo’s death; they’ve updated their page to express gratitude to the State of Maryland for the indictment and charges filed.

Representatives and members of the cycling community have attempted to talk about the systemic inequalities in road planning and design that endanger cyclists and contribute to the 700 cyclists killed, on average, in traffic collisions per year. (Source: NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, 699.2/year)

Greater Greater Washington explored how the road could have been designed to be safer, and the League of American Bicyclists expressed dismay that the majority of drivers involved in fatal accidents with cyclists do not face criminal charges. Their 2012 report, “Every Bicyclist Counts“, found that criminal charges only result in 12% of fatal crashes.

From the League of American Bicyclists statement:

“There are no winners in the aftermath of the awful tragedy that took the life of cyclist Thomas Palermo on the afternoon of December 27,” said Andy Clarke, League President. “We mourn the loss of a fellow cyclist, a father of two, and take no satisfaction in welcoming the charges brought against the driver. Heather Cook had no business being behind the wheel of car that day and was a danger to everyone on the road at the same time as her. The terrible danger of drinking and driving is well known and documented — there is simply no excuse for that behavior. The fact that she may also have been distracted by texting while driving argues for the strongest possible punishment — to prevent her from ever doing this again and to send a clear signal to others that these behaviors are not acceptable.”

Everett poses a series of questions, and maybe challenges, for those of us observing this tragedy in the aftermath.

Again from the blog:

Get as curious about Tom Palermo’s life as we’ve been about Bishop Cook’s. Hear the anger of the cycling community and do not correct it. Simply hear the grief the cycling community at the death of a kind man who learned how to build bike frames and commuted to work daily by bike. Feel the daily anxiety of bike commuters. Palermo was killed on a stretch of wide road with bike lanes, a road considered very safe in North Baltimore; Use your pastoral imagination to wonder how unsafe other cyclists are feeling after his death. Hear the anger of cyclists who learned of Palermo being left to die at the scene of the crime. Imagine what perception of the institutional Church the cycling community has after this tragedy. Hear the disappointment of cyclists that, in the words of Bicycling magazine, “a supposedly moral pillar of the community” flees the scene of a dying man. Listen to the cyclists wondering if class, ecclesial, and white privilege factored into the time delay between the accident and the arrest.

Has this tragedy made you more aware of the vulnerable position that many cyclists are in on their daily commutes and rides?


Posted by David Streever


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June Butler

Tthank you for the link to Laura Everett’s blog post. Except for the fact that I am not a cyclist, Laura says what I’d want to say and some of what I have already said, only her words are more eloquent. I’ve certainly been more focused on safe driving and paying attention since the accident.

May God give comfort, consolation, and peace to Tom’s wife, Rachel, his children, Sadie and Sam, his parents, Carl and Patricia, and all who loved Tom.

Mark Mason

In AA you often hear “The only thing between us and the next drink is our spiritual condition.” The link between AA/12 steps and the Episcopal Church is well documented. Could the founders of AA (including Rev. Samuel Shoemaker) have drawn the 12 steps out of the church today the way they did close to a hundred years ago? Reading things like:

“…to take on a posture of complete humility and repentance, and to serve the cycling community through advocacy and assistance of all kinds.”

would certainly lead one to think so. I recently listened to a member of the clergy say “I don’t care what your lifestyle is!”

Do these sentiments conflict? We are all “diseased” and “sinners.” In large part the key question is where the line is between the call to repentance and acceptance of lifestyle/character flaws is drawn. That line has always moved. Which way is it moving now?

Susan Sommer

Bishop Cook IS being held accountable. There was never any question that she would somehow not be held accountable, either by the law of the land or by the Church. The compassion felt and expressed for Bishop Cook in no way obviates the compassion felt and expressed to the Palermo family. It is not, nor should it be, a matter of polarity. We stand in a place of pain with the Palermo family who have suffered the unthinkable AND, at the same time, stand in a place of pain with one who made a lethal choice to drive while impaired (because that very impairment, and her addiction which launched it, also prevented sound decision-making.) I trust our hearts are large enough to feel pain for both, that our left prefrontal cortices are sufficiently developed to hold these two tragedies in tension, and to offer prayers without ceasing in the midst of both. What no doubt reads like hand-wringing to those outside of the church reads to me as people who are gripped by a dawning awareness of the pervasiveness of untreated addiction within the Church, and calling for it to be recognized and remedied at all levels, most especially in all discernment processes. — Susan Sommer

Catherine Myers

Thank you so very much for this posting. It should have come much sooner, but I am glad it is here . I hope it receives the dissemination it truly deserves. You are correct in every respect. My heart went out to the Palermo family immediately. Heather Cook’s actions were eerily similar to experiences I had with a priest while in seminary. The resulting actions were, as in this instance, to protect the diseased priest to the destruction of any others. The Episcopal Church needs to go to confession and be truly honest and repentant. I apologize to you for having been of that body. Mea culpa. God bless you, and God bless the Palermo family.

Connie Clark

I’m thankful for these words. I lost my father and brother-in-law to a drunk driver. My mother and sister almost died and were permanently disabled. I guarantee you that the self-serving, institution-protecting statements we have seen from the Diocese of Maryland on this incident are pouring salt into the wounds of Thomas Palermo’s family and friends. Where is the compassion and concern for those grieving for Tom Palermo? Why all the public hand-wringing, and above all, why the Bishop’s disclosure of his conversation with fellow Bishops in which they stated, “It’s not your fault,” followed by his strange disclosure that he finds it not Jesus’ fault either (who ever would have thought that it was?)?

The only way for the church to help ameliorate the damage from this terrible crash (note: I don’t call it an accident) is to take on a posture of complete humility and repentance, and to serve the cycling community through advocacy and assistance of all kinds. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it would be wonderfully transformative to see.

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