Facing a manslaughter trial next month in the drunk-driving death of a bicyclist, a top Maryland bishop was defrocked Friday by the Episcopal Church. Heather Cook was the first female bishop in the Diocese of Maryland, which also announced Friday that she has lost her position there.

Cook’s resignation as an employee of 44,000-person diocese ends what was an embarrassing employment issue for the diocese. Bishop Eugene Sutton, the diocese’s leader, had asked in January for her to step down and thousands of Episcopalians were on Facebook pages calling for her to leave her job and to face tough criminal charges.

On Friday, the national denomination announced she had been “deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority of God’s word and sacraments conferred at ordination.” Despite criticism of how other top church officials handled Cook in the run-up to her election last year, the Episcopal Church’s internal probe focused only on Cook and there is no independent investigation of other church leaders. Neva Fox, a spokeswoman for the denomination, declined comment.

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While Cook, a 58-year-old lifelong Marylander whose father was a well-known Baltimore priest, has been in treatment since her January arrest and out of public view, the fact that she was still the No. 2 bishop in the diocese was a concern for the church.

The diocese includes northern and central Maryland and the city of Baltimore. Washington’s Maryland suburbs are part of the Diocese of Washington.

Sutton, a popular leader in the denomination, had been talked about as a possible candidate to become presiding bishop when Katharine Jefferts Schori ends her nine-year  term this fall, and some speculate that controversy over the handling of Cook has affected his career path. Four nominees to replace Jefferts Schori were announced Friday and Sutton’s name was not among them. Had he been elected this year, he would have been the Episcopal Church’s first African-American presiding bishop.

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Efforts to reach Vicki Dexter, the Baltimore attorney representing Cook in her employment discussions with the Maryland Diocese and the national denomination, were not immediately successful Friday. Cook’s lawyer for her criminal case, David Irwin, has acknowledged that Cook was involved in the December accident that killed Thomas Palermo, a popular local father cyclist.

Since Cook was spotted that December day by bicyclists, leaving the scene with a broken windshield, questions have arisen about what church officials – in the dioceses of Maryland and Easton, her previous posting, and among national leadership – knew about her struggles with alcohol and how they handled it. Palermo’s death and Cook’s arrest have triggered intense conversation among Episcopalians about the transparency and effectiveness of their leadership-selection process, and about attitudes toward drinking and toward addiction.

When Cook was nominated a year ago, she told members of the small committee that picked her that she had a drunk-driving arrest, but they did not share that with the broader convention that elected her.

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Diocesan officials say the committee didn’t know the details of the arrest, when Cook was so inebriated in the middle of the night that she was driving on wheel rims and was unable to complete a sobriety test. Officials in Easton had declined comment to the Post about the 2010 arrest and what, if anything, they did to help address Cook’s drinking. She was a top diocesan official there before coming to the Maryland Diocese last year.

Sutton said he spoke with Jefferts Schori two days before Cook was actually installed about the bishop-elect’s drinking but Cook was installed anyway.

Daniel Webster, a spokesman for Sutton, has said it was Cook’s responsibility — not his or the selection committee’s — to share details of her drinking with the wider diocese before she was actually voted in. Webster called the search process a “system based on trust.” Webster also said it was Jefferts Schori’s responsibility, not his, to put Cook’s consecration on hold if she was concerned about Cook’s suitability.

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