A top Episcopal bishop turned herself in to Baltimore police Friday after being charged in the death of a bicyclist with manslaughter, leaving the scene, driving under the influence of alcohol and texting while driving.
Heather Elizabeth Cook, 58, was driving her 2001 Subaru on Roland Avenue in Baltimore on the afternoon of Dec. 27 when she veered into the bike lane where Thomas Palermo, a father of two, was riding, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement Friday.
Cook struck “Palermo from the rear,” Mosby statement’s said, “which caused Palermo to strike the hood and windshield” of Cook’s car.
The statement said Cook left the scene for 30 minutes before returning, and she was given a breath test that “resulted in a .22 reading,” according to the statement, well over the legal blood alcohol limit of 0.08.
The accident has drawn national interest because Cook is the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and its first female bishop, and because she was charged in a dramatic drunken driving case in 2010 at her previous assignment, in the Diocese of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, before becoming bishop. In that case, an officer found Cook in the middle of the night driving on three tires, with vomit on her shirt and too intoxicated to complete a sobriety test, according to the police report.
Officials from the Diocese of Easton and the Diocese of Maryland have been under fire from some local Episcopal leaders who want to know more about how the first incident was handled by church officials and why Cook was picked to be a bishop considering the extreme nature of that arrest. Questions have also been raised as to why the search committee, and not the full voting convention, was told about the earlier charge when Cook was elected bishop last spring.
The incident is also prompting discussion about how addiction and forgiveness are handled in churches — particularly in situations involving top clergy. In a statement, Palermo’s family praised Mosby, who took office this month.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the events leading up to the senseless hit-and-run accident that claimed Tom’s life, and support the prosecutor’s efforts to hold Bishop Heather Cook accountable for her actions to the fullest extent of the law,” the statement said.
Cook’s attorney, David Irwin, declined to comment beyond confirming that she had turned herself in. Baltimore police would not release more details about the day of the accident, including where Cook was going and what or to whom she was texting.
Diocese spokeswoman Sharon Tillman said only that the bishop was on her own time and “not conducting church business.” Cook has history in the area. According to the Baltimore Sun, her 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. In a 1977 Sun article, Cook told his parishioners that he was “a sheep, and this place and you people have often shepherded me. I am an alcoholic.”
Officials with the small Diocese of Easton have declined for days to say anything about what they did — if anything — in 2010 after Cook was charged with drunken driving and possession of marijuana, referring questions to the Diocese of Maryland, where Cook came from last year. The diocese includes 21,500 households in the western and central parts of the state, as well as Southern Maryland.
On Friday, Henry Parsley, who is serving as temporary bishop in Easton, said he had been there only since this summer and did not know Cook, who had been a top administrator there for eight years. He did not confirm if officials even knew of her arrest.“I can say that those who worked with Heather here speak well of her, especially of her many gifts for ministry, her compassion, and her dedication to the church,” he said in an e-mail.
On Friday, Tillman would not say how much detail of the 2010 arrest was known to the small search committee that picked Cook last year. The details were part of the public record and were covered at the time by the Eastern Shore media.
Clergy who last week were at a closed-door meeting with Bishop Eugene Sutton said some of the 70 or so clergy attending were angry that the diocese had not shared more details about Cook when she was elected. Clergy at the meeting were told that the search committee could not tell anyone about the 2010 incident because it was confidential, and that Cook “was encouraged at least twice” to share it, Tillman said.
She could not explain whether it was civil or church law that inhibited the search committee from sharing what happened in 2010.
Episcopal leaders have been speaking out, demanding more details.
“Was she in recovery and was this a terrible relapse . . . or was it a situation that no one knew was an ongoing situation? I think those are fair questions to be asking,” said the Rev. Megan E. Stewart-Sicking of Immanuel Episcopal Church in Glencoe, Md.
Diana Butler Bass, a prominent progressive church historian and Episcopalian who lives in Northern Virginia, said she wondered if the denomination’s liberal tendencies had been harmful in this case.
“We love to give people the benefit of doubt, ‘There but for the grace of God,’ and all that. We’re not the church that likes to condemn people,” she said. “In this case it worked in the wrong direction.”
Butler Bass also commented on the role of forgiveness.
“I don’t always think church people understand the depth and complexity of addiction. Forgiveness isn’t the solution to addiction. And people in leadership should know that,” she said. “The question is, does forgiveness qualify someone to be a bishop and an example in the church? She supposedly represents all Episcopalians. When his kids grow up, their narrative will be that this church killed my father. This is why leaders are held to a higher standard. Because they represent something that’s bigger than just their own problems.”