Leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland who this spring made Heather Elizabeth Cook a bishop — the diocese’s first female bishop — knew the ugly details of her 2010 drunk-driving arrest but determined “that this one mistake should not bar her for consideration as a leader,” the diocese said in a statement Tuesday.
Now the diocese finds itself under fire after Cook’s acknowledgment that she was involved in a crash on Saturday that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, the father of two small children. Cook left the scene but returned later, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton said in a statement Monday.
Baltimore police said they have questioned a woman about the crash, but they have not named Cook and no charges have been filed.
Cook’s attorney, David Irwin, declined to comment in detail but has confirmed she was involved in the crash.
Since May, Cook has been the No. 2 bishop in the diocese, which is headquartered in Baltimore and includes 21,500 households in west, central and parts of Southern Maryland. Episcopalians in Washington’s close-in Maryland suburbs are part of the Washington Diocese.
According to records released Tuesday by the Caroline County sheriff’s office, Cook — who was then assigned as a priest on the Eastern Shore of Maryland — was pulled over at 1:15 a.m. in September 2010 and was too intoxicated to complete sobriety tests. She had vomit on her shirt, the report said, and one of her four tires was shredded down to the rims. Cook told the officer she was driving from Canada and had drunk alcohol and smoked marijuana while driving, according to the police report.
Cook later submitted to a blood-alcohol breath test and recorded a 0.27, far above the legal limit.
Church leaders who knew of Cook’s 2010 arrest did not return calls Tuesday asking for more details about their decision to install Cook, the daughter of an Episcopal priest. Diocesan spokeswoman Sharon Tillman said the co-chairs of the selection committee and the diocese’s chancellor knew of the incident, but she couldn’t confirm who else knew.
Several people who were part of the bigger convention that voted for Cook this spring said they were not told about the arrest.
Cook was initially charged with driving under the influence, reckless driving and possession of marijuana, among other charges, but received “probation before judgment” and completed her probation.
The diocese’s statement Tuesday said Cook disclosed the 2010 case to those considering electing her a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a small but historically prominent American Protestant denomination.
“After extensive discussion and discernment about the incident, and after further investigation, including extensive background check and psychological investigation, it was determined that this one mistake should not bar her for consideration as a leader,” the statement reads. “We, too are all filled with questions for which there are still no answers, and we are all filled with anger, bitterness, pain and tears. Our thoughts and prayers right now are with Mr. Palermo, his family and friends, and the bicycling community. And, we continue to pray for Bishop Cook in this time of her tremendous grief and sorrow.”
Sutton placed Cook on administrative leave, noting she may face criminal charges.
Many Baltimore-area cyclists have been focused since Saturday on the case, noting that Cook left the scene after the 2:30 p.m. crash, despite having a heavily broken windshield. Sutton’s letter said Cook returned to the scene “after about 20 minutes to take responsibility for her actions.” However, cyclists on several Baltimore news and biking sites said that her car was chased by other cyclists and that she returned only because of that.
Bikemore, a Baltimore-based advocacy group for cyclists, said a memorial ride and vigil for Palermo is scheduled for Jan. 1. The event will take place at 3:30 p.m. at Bishop Square Park near the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore.
Palermo’s brother-in-law said there will be a visitation at Ruck Funeral Home in Towson on Friday and a funeral Mass on Saturday at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Towson.
In a statement, Palermo’s family asked for privacy. They said the longtime cyclist and software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital leaves a wife, and children, ages 6 and 4.
“With a quick wit, a quiet intelligence and a kind heart, Tom had a large group of friends and family who cared for him deeply,” the statement said.
Baltimore police have released almost no details since Saturday, saying their investigation continues. No public information has suggested alcohol or drugs were involved in the crash that killed Palermo.
Cook’s 2010 arrest has prompted intense debate on private e-mail discussion groups popular with church-watchers about her fitness for the job of bishop — particularly considering her prominence as the diocese’s first female. Some said the details of her arrest should have disqualified her, or at least been discussed publicly, while others said clergy must be seen as human or otherwise can be at risk of hiding their problems.
“One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness,” the diocese’s statement Tuesday read. “We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption.”
According to The Baltimore Sun, Cook’s father became known as a “national leader” in the Episcopal Church for working to fight alcoholism in the ministry – including his own. The late Rev. Halsey Cook, who at one time was rector of the well-known St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore — informally known as Old St. Paul’s — spoke from the pulpit about his disease. On Tuesday, the Sun quoted itself decades earlier, in 1977, when Cook told his parishioners he was “a sheep, and this place and you people have often shepherded me. I am an alcoholic.”