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Transparency and leadership in the Diocese of Maryland

Transparency and leadership in the Diocese of Maryland

Reactions to the death of Tom Palermo continue throughout the Baltimore community and the Episcopal Church. In today’s Baltimore Sun, Dan Rodricks cites an unusual amount of transparent communication under the leadership of Bishop Eugene Sutton in the Diocese of Maryland as the diocese reaches out to the Palermo family and responds to grief, outrage, and despair in the church:

“All candidates have warts,” Bishop Eugene Sutton, the head of the diocese, told a Baltimore Sun reporter. “Everybody deserves a second chance. When the church ceases to give second chances, when the church ceases to show compassion, we cease to be the church.”

All of this public “Agony in the Garden” has occurred under Sutton’s leadership.

I emphasize it because it’s highly unusual for any organization, secular or nonsecular, to release information about officials or employees who might face criminal charges. The diocese has been way ahead of law enforcement in telling the story of Palermo’s death. You can take a dark or skeptical view of it, but this kind of transparency is rare.

More than others, religious leaders might feel particularly compelled to open up about the involvement of one of their own in a tragedy such as this. But public confession and contrition are hardly the hallmarks of large churches implicated in scandal and crime. In fact, coverup and silence are usually the rule.

We have seen something quite different from Sutton in this episode involving Cook, including savvy awareness that it’s nearly impossible to keep secrets anymore, especially in Smalltimore.

Over at Baltimore Brew, there’s this op-ed, dated January 5, critical of the justice system. The author is a public defender. Excerpts:

My reaction focuses on justice. Equal Justice.

Palermo died 10 days ago and still no charges have been filed by the State’s Attorney’s Office against the driver of the vehicle that hit him. Why? Based on my experience as an attorney in the Public Defender’s Office for 10 years, I believe one key factor is at work.

Heather Elizabeth Cook, who drove into Palermo and fled as he lay dying, is a member of the upper tier of Baltimore’s socioeconomic ladder as the Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

If one of my clients, who are mostly African-American men, hit Palermo, charges would have been immediately filed against them. This would have been done at the scene by police without a formal arrest – or at the jail if the police took them in and prosecutors looked at the (still publicly unreleased) police report about the incident.

Posted by Weston Matthews


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Art Stewart

More details are being revealed now, following Friday’s announcement of formal charges, mostly thanks to some admirable investigative reporting by several media outlets. Statements from various lay persons have been clarifying that indeed the non-disclosure of potentially disqualifying information on then-candidate Heather Cook actually extended to the MD diocesan convention delegates… Is this true? Or, at best, delegates we given very minimal information on her 2010 DUI prior to the voting process. And that the full scope of information was withheld either due to legal restrictions (like what gag order would be in place?) or to meet compliance with Church policy (any policy restricting access to information of this nature on a candidate for Bishop during a voting process is a policy that needs to go). Every dribble of detail we are now getting from the church, with the formal presentment of charges outlining a very disturbing scenario, makes the integrity of ECUSA appear increasingly compromised. The Diocese says one thing in continuously murky presentations and lay leaders refute much of those communications with contrary clarifications – mostly in public media. The system and aspects of our governance are broken.

Pete Haynsworth

There’s some sympathy for Bishop Sutton from this pewsitter.

Only 7 months had transpired from the time of Cook’s election as suffragan to this tragedy. How well did Sutton really know Cook?

Conversely, as Canon to the Ordinary/second-in-command in the Easton diocese, she presumably was personally chosen by and well known to the bishop there, and was supervised by him for 4 years after her first DUI.

How about some transparency from that diocese about her tenure there.

Art Stewart

While I believe Bishop Sutton is due some credit for transparency and getting out ahead of the media early on in disclosing that Bishop Cook was the driver, that’s where the Diocese’s leadership in this tragedy basically ended. Public statements by Sutton and the Diocese continued to include a repeat of incorrect information (i.e., “returned 20 minutes later to accept responsibility for her actions”) for more than a week, with little else said, prompting the public to rightly perceive that the Church was ‘circling the wagons’ to cover itself. Those repeated statements had a tone of favoring Cook’s actions and of course turned out to be significantly inaccurate. While it was wise to refrain from commenting on the perceived sequence of events prior to the filing of charges, Sutton should have appeared on camera to publicly express the institution’s sorrow in the tragedy from a pastoral perspective. He certainly could have refused to comment on matters that would have jeopardized the investigation. As a result, the Church overall has suffered significant damage to its reputation. Beyond all the details that have now been revealed, the system for vetting and electing candidates to high office in our Church is clearly broken. One example, no one (including Sutton) has addressed this fact: Apparently, few (if any) diocesan Standing Committee members across the country – who needed to confirm Cook’s election – were aware of her 2010 arrest and the circumstances of it. Despite disclosure in the Maryland process, and the subsequent evaluations that deemed her “fit” for office, this non-disclosure in the wider confirmation process should have rendered her election null and void. Why? Because any other diocese could have come to a different conclusion and determined that such conduct, by its standards, made her unsuitable to hold the office and refuse to confirm her. Due process was not upheld in this case, as such failure to disclosure could easily be interpreted as willful withholding of essential disqualifying factors.

Rev. Don Hands, Ph.D

As a priest and forensic psychologist, I was charged with the task of witnessing, collecting and verifying weekly, random urine testing samples from a high-ranking Church leader. I sent them to a lab and the results went to the an oversight committee. This continued for years and the Church leader welcomed the chance to prove his sobriety. I recommend this practice. Past behavior is still the best predictor and demands this type of accountability and verification.

James Pratt

25 years ago I was on a search committee. One of our finalists was a recovering alcoholic, though that fact was not disclosed to us. The one clue: an extra year to complete seminary, although when we asked about it, we got an evasive answer about taking time off. (The bishop who was pushing this candidate, the late David Johnson, had his own skeletons in the closet). We did call this priest, and once he was in the parish, people quickly figured it out. There was a lot of resentment as the facts became known, and some people used it against him. But he remained sober throughout his tenure, and his alcoholism had absolutely nothing to do with his less than happy departure from the parish.

Honesty up front, throughout the search process, would have allowed us to have an honest conversation with him about alcoholism and have started his relationship with the parish on a more positive and understanding note, and avoided any resentment or second-guessing.

Perhaps if the Diocese of Maryland had been more open in its search process, they might still have called Heather Cook. But they would also have had an opportunity to give her a support system that might have prevented this tragedy. At least we would not have seen the widespread shock, finger-pointing and overly defensive posturing from the diocese that we now have. (Had there been such disclosure, I imagine the response now would be “we believe in grace and forgiveness, and in second chances, but in this case we made a mistake”).

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