Under fire for not doing more to rein in a bishop accused of killing a cyclist while driving drunk, Episcopal officials said Tuesday that they didn’t push Heather Cook to discuss her alcoholism to respect her privacy.
The Diocese of Maryland set off debate late Monday when it posted a new, detailed timeline in the case of Cook, who is charged with manslaughter in the December death of Baltimore bicyclist Thomas Palermo. According to the timeline, Bishop Eugene Sutton — Cook’s boss and the chief bishop of the diocese — suspected that Cook was drunk during a pre-consecration dinner two nights before she was officially made a bishop in the fall.
The timeline also says Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, leader of the Episcopal Church, who presided over the Sept. 6 service that consecrated Cook, was also made aware that Cook may have been drunk during the dinner.
Sutton — who oversees Episcopalians in much of Maryland aside from the D.C. suburbs — suspected Cook was “inebriated during pre-consecration dinner,” the timeline says, “and conveys concern to Presiding Bishop. Presiding Bishop indicates she will discuss with Cook. Cook consecrated.”
Officials with the diocese, which elected Cook its first female bishop last spring, have said for weeks that they knew before her election that she was involved in a drunken-driving incident in 2010. However, they have declined to answer questions about whether they had any reason to be concerned about her drinking during the period between her election and the fatal incident in December.
The timeline says Bishop Clay Matthews, who works in the Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development, met with Cook in October. “Details confidential to only the Presiding Bishop’s office,” it says.
A spokeswoman for Jefferts Schori declined to comment Tuesday, noting that there is an internal disciplinary investigation taking place in Cook’s case. Neva Fox, the spokeswoman, would not say when the probe might be done or whether its conclusions would be made public.
Messages left Monday night and Tuesday with Cook’s attorney, David Irwin, were not returned. Cook is in an inpatient treatment facility and not reachable.
The Episcopal Church began investigating Cook after she was charged last month with manslaughter, drunken driving, texting while driving and leaving the scene of the crime in the death of Palermo, a father who was out for a Saturday bike ride when he was hit.
Officials in the diocese have asked Cook to step down from her position as No. 2 in the region.
Officials in the dioceses of Maryland and Easton, where she was assigned before, have said little since Cook’s arrest about what they said and did after the incident in 2010, when she was pulled over in the middle of the night, driving on three tires and too intoxicated to complete a sobriety test.
On Tuesday, Daniel Webster, a diocesan official for evangelization pulled in to deal with the increased media attention, said that before Cook was elected, the search committee that picked Cook in the spring and Bishop Sutton knew only that she had been arrested in 2010 on drunken-driving charges. They did not know the details, he said, and did not know that she had sought treatment at the time for an alcohol problem.
According to the Baltimore Sun, which obtained a transcript of Cook’s 2010 hearing before a judge in that case, she was undergoing three forms of counseling for drinking and had “voluntarily had an ignition interlock device installed in her car,” the piece said.
“I am regarding this as a major wake-up call in my life, and I’m doing things now that I was not able to do without this motivation,” Cook told the judge in 2010, according to the Sun.
The church’s handling of Cook has angered many Episcopalians who don’t understand why church leaders didn’t gain access to details that were public record. The church was also criticized for not sharing the 2010 arrest with the wider body that elected Cook last year.
“I join most people in wondering right now why her prior conviction was not disclosed to the convention who picked her,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, a longtime Episcopal priest who is dean of Washington National Cathedral. “I think if someone who had that serious of a violation and such a potentially serious alcohol issue — that should have been disclosed to the diocese.”
Webster said Tuesday that it was up to Cook to disclose such details.
“It’s part of the Episcopal Church’s respecting the privacy of individuals to a point that gives them the freedom to be able to share what’s going on in their life,” Webster said.
Asked if Sutton was angry that the search process didn’t turn up more detail, Webster said: “This goes back to the issue of trust. This whole vetting system is based upon trust.”
Sutton’s office Tuesday appeared to point fingers at other church officials. The new timeline said Cook’s most-recent employer — the Diocese of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — recommended her “without hesitation or reservation.”
The diocese also released an updated “FAQ,” which said it wasn’t Sutton’s responsibility to put Cook’s consecration on hold, even if he was worried about her drinking there enough to tell the head of the national church.
“He did exactly what was required and expected of him according to the structure of The Episcopal Church,” the FAQ said. “When it comes to matters of ‘suitability’ to serve as a bishop, Cook is under the authority of the Presiding Bishop, not the diocesan bishop. The Presiding Bishop would have had to make that decision.”