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Bishop Heather Cook indicted on 13 charges in cyclist’s death

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

Bishop Heather Cook indicted on 13 charges in cyclist’s death

The Baltimore Brew from Wednesday, February 5:

A city grand jury has indicted Episcopal Bishop Heather E. Cook on additional counts arising from her fatal crash with bicyclist Tom Palermo on December 27, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office announced this afternoon.

In addition to four original criminal charges involving manslaughter, homicide by a motor vehicle while impaired, leaving the scene of a fatal accident and several traffic charges – Cook was indicted today on a series of related counts, including reckless driving, negligent driving, drunk driving, texting while driving and failure to stop a vehicle as close as possible to the scene of an accident.

The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post also have reports.

Arraignment is scheduled on March 5th.

Addendum: Regarding the 2010 DUI and Bishop Sutton’s answers at forums after the second DUI the Baltimore Sun has a new item, Head of Episcopal diocese tries to clarify comments on bishop’s drinking.

 

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Dale Matson

Alcoholism is not a new problem. Addictions are not new either. Maybe TEC has an unacceptable culture of tolerance for alcohol and drug abuse and the process for vetting clergy reflected that. Review the process but Lent is a good season to review the culture of what is acceptable conduct.

Frankie Andreu

This is what the Rev. Anjel Scarborough wrote after attending a meeting with Bishop Sutton and his diocesan staff (http://livingchurch.org/thoughts-md-rector):
“I have been asked as to whether or not Heather was subjected to a criminal background check as all candidates for ordination are in the Episcopal Church. Candidates for deacon and priest are subjected to a thorough criminal background check. The background check I went through was more rigorous than the one I went through for a top secret clearance with the DOD.”
Those those who are in denial that Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bishop Sutton did not know certainly are not even listening to their own members of the Standing Committee.
The Rev. Anjel Scarborough goes on: “In the end, this was an epic failure. It was the failure of a process to stop a candidate for bishop from being put forward when clearly her alcoholism was not in remission. It was a failure of Heather’s to choose not to treat her alcoholism and conceal her past. This resulted in the death of a husband and father — something which Heather will have to live with for the rest of her life and for which she may be incarcerated. This was our failure of Heather too. As the Church, we set her up to fail by confusing forgiveness with accountability. We did not hold her accountable to a program of sobriety and we failed to ask the tough love questions which needed to be asked. In so doing, we offered cheap grace — and that is enabling.”
The Church failed. It enabled Bishop Cook. It is time now for serious and thorough accountability.

Philip B. Spivey

I agree, entirely, Frankie. With 20/20 hindsight, we are better equipped to see the origins of what ultimately becomes a train wreck for Heather Cook. I pray that, from here on, the Church can be educated and sensitized to the trajectory of this crippling human disorder.

I’m reminded of reports issued by the FAA following a major airplane crash: If pilot error and weather have been ruled out, then they focus on mechanical failure. With rare exception, when the cause is mechanical failure, they find that not one, but a series of failures in the plane’s mechanical systems occurred before plane crashed. They cite that ” of the many redundant (backup) systems in place to prevent catastrophic failure, each of these systems themselves failed; a cascade of failures, in the end. An extremely rare occurrence in air travel these days.

I can’t help compare Heather Cook’s much longer trajectory to that jetliner. But, I do wonder what the Church, and society in general, can do to establish redundancies for people in trouble: what systems/structures (psychological; social; medical; spiritual) that might act as “brakes” for a life careening out of control; structures that might intervene when irrational decision making takes over.

It’s too late for Heather Cook, but it’s not too late for some of us who will enter parishes tomorrow morning, kneel and ask God’s help with some terrible pain we are carrying.

Mary Elisabeth Rivetti

Whew. Frankie Andreu, it is challenging to see how what you are quoting from a column written for The Witness by Dan Webster when he was communications director for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah has to do with the work he is now doing on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. (By the way, the link you provided does not call up the article in question, but rather a page of several articles.) The passage you quoted may not be artfully expressed, but is not at all proposing manifold deities, but is, if I can recall that far back, talking about the sacredness of all human activity. Something that the reformer Martin Luther was at great pains to emphasize.

If Dan is indeed charged with managing the flow of communication for the Bishop of Maryland, there is a good reason for that — namely to provide appropriate and consistent information that doesn’t rely on top of the head recollection or even spontaneous response to requests for information — which might be inaccurate or incomplete, and then need to be corrected. Whenever a crisis hits it is wise to have someone managing the flow of information – not to spin it so much as to make sure that the best information is produced in a timely fashion to the appropriate people who need to know.

The anger that you express regarding Bishops Sutton and Jefferts Schori is perhaps misplaced. The egregious behavior exhibited by Bishop Cook in 2010 and before took place when she was serving in another diocese. That the background check conducted by the search committee of the Diocese of Maryland did not reveal the severity of the DUI indicates that both she and her sponsoring diocese chose not to reveal fairly serious information about the context of the DUI. The information was compartmentalized enough that, though Bishop Sutton saw that she was intoxicated and passed the information on up the line, apparently the only one who could have connected the dots was Bishop Cook herself. That is the point of several other posts on this site and in other arenas around the culture of denial, minimalization and compartmentalization in the church writ whole. It may not rise to the level of criminal complicity, but it certainly requires that we stop and look at our behavior — and change it accordingly.

In the meantime, the due process for Bishop Cook both in the civil courts and in the ecclesiastical procedings, is slow and deliberate. Believe it or not, clergy under ecclesiastical proceedings are not granted the same level of protection as a citizen under criminal proceedings. There will be consequences. But violating the process or jumping the gun on disclosing information doesn’t make the proceedings run more insistently or more surely.

I’m not even sure it’s wise for the diocese of Maryland to have asked for her to resign her position. It’s really not that simple a process to “wash our hands” of someone who has wreaked havoc in the way that Bishop Cook has done.

We pray every day for the family of Tom Palermo, who did not deserve any of this.

Frankie Andreu

Mary Elizabeth Rivetti, thank you for pointing out the lack of clarity in my post above in response to the inquisitive question raised by Jean Lall. The first sentence quoted I attributed (correctly) to Rev. Canon Dan Webster. The second quotation I attributed to “you” or Jean Lall, who I had addressed the comments to. This is from interview she gave and is publicly available. The theological question of the existence of “gods” or “home spirits” is not on the table now and so I won’t pursue it with you. I only want to be clear to Jean Lall, that my beliefs did not line up with hers, regarding religion or regarding the practices and beliefs of Rev. Canon Webster.
I apologize if my response appeared angry. Perhaps it does. My feeling is more of deep sympathy for the needless death of a person and disappointment in the Church and leadership in its response.
I think it is amply clear now that the position you defend is simply one of denial and a cover-up. I don’t suggest that you yourself are involved, but it is the position you defend. Anyone reading the public information on the 2010 DUI of Bishop Cook would know she was a serious alcoholic. Blowing .27 and having smoked two bags of marihuana and still being alive and conscious is an amazing feat. I couldn’t do it and I doubt you could either.
The role of Rev. Canon Dan Webster and his wife’s company, Meredith Gould, is far beyond the pale. Bishop Sutton told the congregation and the American public he was not communicating with the press. He did this then secretly and completely at his behest by secretly employing two people with questionable backgrounds and practices. This is completely unacceptable to those who occupy the pews and to the American public.
Beyond this it is clear that Bishop Sutton has been anything but honest. His statement today is simply appalling, and an outright admittance of lying and then excusing the lies.
What is clear that neither Bishop Jefferts Schori or Bishop Sutton did due diligence. Others too. Bishop, the President of the Search Committee, and the members of the Standing Committee acted recklessly and irresponsibly by not asking the right questions and not looking at the easily available public record. They all showed gross negligence and incompetence, and this has resulted in a needless and horrible death.
Instead of hiding behind law, Canon or civil, Bishops Jefferts Schori and Sutton should come out and state the truth and the whole truth as they know it. Nothing in any law ever prevents anyone from stating the truth. To say so is simply to be part of a cover-up. Simply saying you will change your behavior does not cut it. Just this mentality led to this shameful death. The people responsible for this behavior need to be held accountable, there needs to be real truth-telling (not the spin like we got today), and these complicit and incompetent people need to go.
They should also provide a transparent investigation into the entire past of Bishop Cook as well as all the damage she has done throughout her career. It was anything but stellar with the exception of one killing, as the Church is now pretending. They should also state that they are investigating how Bishop Cook (or someone else in the Diocese of Easton) ever allowed the deposed priest and lover of Bishop Cook to become a lay pastor and be in control of the finances of two non-for-profits related to the Church. All this is possible. No law on earth or in heaven prevents it.
(And for goodness sakes, Bishop Sutton could start today by firing his spin doctors.)

Frankie Andreu

Meredith Gould and Rev. Canon Dan Webster have just come up with another doozy of a winner for Bishop Eugene Sutton: http://www.livingchurch.org/title-iv-and-disclosure
Really folks, having someone say I lied but I didn’t lie; I follow Canon law but I break it when it suits my purposes; this does not help the Church in the public’s eye.
And it is really just pure spin. The honesty and transparency the members of the Church and the public is calling for is just nowhere to be found.

Nick Porter

That definitely sounds like spin for sure. It’s time he hang up his miter and clean that diocese from the top down.

Frankie Andreu

Mr. Porter, you know the very first rule of a spin doctor: “Release bad or embarrassing news on a Friday evening.”

Jim Frodge

People should not expect to learn much from Oxford Documents. The Episcopal Church should not expect much either.

Oxford Documents does a better job than most similar companies. However they are limited in what information they can find. Their criminal history check is limited to court records available online but there are many courts in this country who do not provide online access to their records. Oxford Documents still follows the practice of checking references provided by an applicant. This is really not very useful since applicants generally will not list as a reference anyone who has bad things to say about them. I know of one candidate vetted by them who claimed to hold both a Master’s Degree and a PHD when in fact the candidate never attended college at all and purchased the degrees from a “degree mill”. These things do not make Oxford Documents bad since they are only providing the level of service that the client is paying for. Thorough background checks are time consuming and expensive and cannot be done by using the internet or mailing out letters.

However in the case of Heather Cook the proof that she was an alcoholic was evident. Her conviction in 2010 and her attorney’s statements to the court regarding her alcoholism were public record and easy to find. However nobody ever bothered to ask to see them. Her appearance at her pre-consecration dinner intoxicated alarmed Bishop Sutton enough that he claims to have reported it to the presiding bishop who apparently did not care.

The Episcopal Church failed here in so many ways. The church used an inadequate method of background checks. The church looked the other way and failed to ask the right questions when Heather Cook was arrested in 2010. Then both Bishop Sutton and the Presiding Bishop failed to show leadership and allowed the consecration to proceed.

Bishop Sutton has promised transparency while at the same time retaining a company to manage this crisis. The Presiding Bishop refuses to answer any questions at all.

The people in the pews deserve far better than this from their church leaders.

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