Ex-bishop Heather Cook to be released from prison this month

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It was announced earlier this week that Heather Cook, a former suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Maryland, will be released from prison later this month after serving just over three and a half years of a seven year sentence stemming from a December 27, 2014 traffic accident in which she struck and killed a cyclist and fled the scene.  In 2015, Cook pleaded guilty to four charges associated with the accident, including vehicular manslaughter, texting while driving, driving under the influence of alcohol, and leaving the scene of the crash.  Cook was sentenced to seven years in prison but has earned an earlier release through good behavior and participation in prison programs.  Cook will be on supervised probation for five years following her release.

During her time in prison, Cook has organized a meeting for fellow inmates struggling with addiction and recovery and organized a symposium on the subject of recovery.  Despite good behavior and what Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory characterized as “substantial rehabilitation” while in prison, all of Cook’s previous motions for early release, including parole, work release, and home detention, were denied.

The family of Thomas Palermo, the cyclist and father of two who was killed when Cook struck him with her car and fled the scene, is strongly opposed to Cook’s early release.  Palermo’s sisters-in-law shared their concerns in an interview with the Baltimore Sun this week.  One sister-in-law, Leah Rock, expressed concern about Cook’s recovery and her ability to maintain her progress in recovery when she is released from prison and has easier access to drugs and alcohol. Another sister-in-law, Alisa Rock, stated:

“Each of Cook’s attempts to reduce her sentence — applications for parole, house arrest, work release, now … one for modification — traumatizes my sister and her family anew…This trauma will affect [Palermo’s wife and children] for the rest of their lives, and it’s only appropriate that Heather Cook serve out her original sentence not only for the act of killing Tom, but for leaving him there. Especially for leaving him there, for abdicating responsibility for what she did.”

An attorney for Cook, David Irwin, stated that while he is unsure of Cook’s exact plans upon her release, she does plan to continue working with women who are incarcerated, carrying on the work she began while in prison.  The exact date of Cook’s release has not been made public, a standard safety protocol, but Cook is expected to be released by the middle of this month.

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Eric Bonetti
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PS I’d add that the consecration process remains fundamentally flawed. If nothing else, Cook’s choice of partners — allegedly a defrocked Episcopal priest — should have given the discernment committee ample cause to take a deep breath, pause, and dig a little deeper. In other words, due diligence is not inappropriate, yet committee members appear either to not fully understand the concept, or perhaps willing to go there.

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Eric Bonetti
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What is troubling about the Heather Cook case is that there still is no meaningful action within TEC to promote accountability. Indeed, the report that emerged following this horrific tragedy is startlingly similar to reports on the same topics written in the 80’s, yet very little has changed. Moreover, many dioceses have not done any follow-up as a result of the report, despite GC’s call to them to do so.

On a more foundational level, the church still appears to struggle with a flawed theology of forgiveness, in which a bad actor is expected to say, “I’m sorry,” and the victim or their family is expected to automatically forgive and move on. That’s not how forgivess and reconciliation can or should work; accountability and restitution both are vital components. Yet to my knowledge there’s no meaningful effort under way to address this misplaced notion.

Until TEC fully explores and resolves these issues, the sad lessons of the Heather Cook saga will remain unlearned.

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Harry M. Merryman
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Harry M. Merryman

We should not conflate forgiveness with reconciliation. Accountability has nothing to do with forgiveness. The Lord's Prayer does NOT say ". . . as we forgive those who have accepted responsibility for their sins against us." In Xn understanding, forgiveness is not dependent on the attitude of the sinner; it is a free act of grace that emulates the Grace extended to us by God without precondition. Reconciliation, on the other hand, rests on a foundation of forgiveness; it requires the power of forgiveness AS WELL AS the sinner’s acceptance of responsibility for her/his acts.

BTW, research has shown that forgiveness without precondition promotes healing for those who have been hurt by others’ sinful acts. But we are called to forgive Heather Cook, not because we will experience healing in doing so, but also because it opens the possibility for restitution and reconciliation, i.e., healing for her as well.

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David Johnson
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David Johnson

A different issue: I hope that the system -- with its many constituent members -- which encouraged, promoted, and ratified her election and consecration as bishop (despite awareness of addictive tendencies) faces its own culpability and is reformed, in light of the devastating consequences of having done nothing.

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Tim Kruse
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Tim Kruse

Once again her evolving story gives us an opportunity to read again the General Convention's resolution 2015-A158 to evaluate "how we're doing" as a church: https://episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution-complete.pl?resolution=2015-A158

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Fred Loving
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Fred Loving

This may not be over for her. The family could start civil action.

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Neil Rice
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Neil Rice

The family has settled the civil suit. Terms were not disclosed.

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