Episcopalians Outraged Heather Cook Was Promoted to Bishop After 2010 DUI; Some Didn't Know About Alcoholism Until Hit-And-Run

Heather Cook, Thomas Palermo, Tom Palermo
Thomas Palermo, 41, and Heather Cook, 58. |

As the Episcopal Church of Maryland reels over last Saturday's fatal hit-and-run accident involving their second-highest ranking official, Heather Cook, 58, some Episcopalians say she should've never been promoted so soon after her 2010 DUI, while others say they weren't informed about her scandalous brush with the law before her election last spring.

Cook, who was elected as the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church of Maryland in May, hit 41-year-old married father of two, Thomas Palermo, as he cycled on a Baltimore roadway Saturday afternoon then fled the scene as he lay dying. She only returned to see what she had done after other cyclists reportedly chased her down.

An investigation into her background by several media outlets this week highlighted details of a shocking 2010 DUI where she was reportedly so drunk she couldn't complete a sobriety test.

The Diocese acknowledged the reports in a statement on Tuesday, and explained that they had forgiven the bishop.

"One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness. We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption," the Diocese said in their statement.

"As part of the search process, Bishop Cook fully disclosed the 2010 DUI for which charges were filed resulting in a 'probation before judgment.' 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," it continued.

Several people who were part of the bigger convention that elected Cook to the high church office told The Washington Post that the information on her DUI was not revealed to them during the wider election.

Writing in an online forum called Episcopal Café, Fr. John Farrell, a priest in recovery for 40 years and whose LinkedIn profile lists him as "blissfully retired," said Cook's elevation to the position of bishop by the Diocese, knowing of her 2010 DUI, was a very risky and apparently unprecedented decision.

"I was shocked to learn she was charged in 2010 with DUI and possession of pot. Could someone tell me where the hell the Suffragan Search Committee was on this one? Heather Cook led the field in a slate of five women candidates. It strikes me that Maryland's political zeal to have a woman suffragan blinded the people who should have vetted all five properly," wrote Farrell in one of several comments.

He continued: "Understanding that [the] discussion of alcohol and alcoholism in the Cook case is sheer speculation, I'd like to make several tentative remarks to those who might argue that Bishop Cook may have demonstrated to the search committee that she was in a recovery program and was addressing her alcoholism successfully. On that basis, the committee may have decided not to jeopardize her chances by making the matter public. Be that as it may, as a priest in recovery for 40 years, I can tell you this was not the case when I was interviewed by a Commission on Ministry in 1985."

"At that point commissions were looking for at least 10 years of continuous sobriety before a person in recovery could be ordained. Upon advice, that was the time period regarded as necessary to reach full recovery with a diminished chance of relapse. If she was elected with less than two years of sobriety and expected to withstand the rigors of the episcopacy emotionally unprepared, a relapse might have been predicted," he noted.

Another recovering alcoholic and United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Emily C. Heath, agreed in an op-ed posted to her website Thursday that the time was too short between her DUI and elevation.

"As far as her consecration as bishop, a very short period of time had elapsed between her DUI incident and her elevation. If she was sober, she was still in 'early sobriety' and taking on a position like this, with higher stress and demands on time, would have likely been discouraged. And, if she relapsed, as now seems likely, it was on her to step back and say, 'I need to focus on getting healthy,'" wrote Heath.

"But Bishop Cook alone is not at fault. Church communities are often too quick to push those who have had major falls back into the spotlight. They are not doing the one who is recovering any favors by pushing a false rhetoric of 'forgiveness' or 'grace,'" Heath asserted. "Sometimes grace means saying 'you need to work on yourself for a while.'"

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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