Heather Cook Isn't the First High-Ranking Episcopal Bishop Who Struggled With Alcohol, but She Could Be First to Pay After Cyclist's Death

Bishop Heather Cook (l) and the late Thomas Palermo (r).
Bishop Heather Cook (l) and the late Thomas Palermo (r). | (Photos: Episcopal Diocese of Maryland; Michael Tappe)

Just months after her historic election as the first female bishop of The Episcopal Church of Maryland, Heather Cook, 58, is facing an uncertain future after a December hit-and-run incident in which Thomas Palermo, 41, was killed and a scandalous 2010 DUI has come back to haunt her.

While no information concerning the exact details of the incident has been released, a Baltimore Police Department official told The Christian Post Monday that criminal charges are pending.

When reached for an update on when the investigation of Palermo's death will be complete, Tony Savage of the Office of the State's Attorney for Baltimore City said Wednesday that the investigation into Palermo's death remains "ongoing" and declined to say more.

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Records reveal, however, that while Cook isn't the only high-ranking Episcopalian to have had trouble with alcohol, she is the only one known to have caused the death of someone. And the only one that appears to have disclosed her struggle with the bottle to the church prior to being elected bishop — a decision that, in hindsight, baffles many onlookers.

In 2006, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, announced that he was being treated for alcoholism.

"I am writing to you from an alcohol treatment center where on Feb. 1, (2006), with the encouragement and support of my partner, daughters and colleagues, I checked myself in to deal with my increasing dependence on alcohol," he told clergy in an email, according to the USA Today at the time.

Robinson, who announced his divorce from his partner last year, said he had been struggling with alcoholism for years before the announcement but colleagues say they saw no signs of it.

The late Thomas Palermo, 41 and his two children.
The late Thomas Palermo, 41 and his two children. | (Photo: YouCaring)

Several years earlier, in 1999, the now retired 10th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, Carolyn Tanner Irish, had to take time off to check into rehab after announcing that she was an alcoholic. According to Deseret News, she still attends meetings to fight the disease and counsels those who struggle with the bottle as well.

David Virtue, managing editor of virtueonline, also alleged that long deceased Bishop of Virginia Robert Bruce Hall was "a raging alcoholic."

"I briefly worked for the Bishop of Virginia, Robert Bruce Hall, a raging alcoholic who could barely get through a Eucharist service before hitting the bottle," he wrote.

After news broke that Cook had a 2010 DUI and possession of marijuana charges that were not previously made public, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland suprisingly revealed last week that Cook informed them of the charge before her historic election as bishop last spring.

According to the report of the arresting officer in the 2010 case published by the Baltimore Brew, Cook was driving on the shoulder at 29 mph in a 50 mph-zone with a shredded front tire.

"I asked her if she had consumed any alcohol prior to driving. Cook stated that she stopped in Pennsylvania and had a few alcoholic drinks. I investigated the burned rubber smell and found the front passenger side tire to be completely shredded from the rim. (A later search did not find the tire or any parts of it) It appeared that Cook had been riding on the rim for some distance," wrote the officer.

Cook's vehicle, a 2001 green Subaru wagon, reeked of alcohol and she had vomit streaming down the front of her shirt. With a .27 blood alcohol level, more than three times the legal limit in Maryland, she was so intoxicated, noted the officer, she couldn't finish a field sobriety test as there were concerns she would fall and hurt herself.

Cook advised she had no impairments that would preclude her from completing the test. I explained and demonstrated the test to Cook. Cook used her left foot to raise in the air and when she raised that foot, she lost her balance and fell to her left. She dropped her foot to the ground prior to falling to catch herself. Cook's extremely intoxicated condition precluded her from completing the field sobriety tests. I believed that if Cook continued the testing, she might possibly injure herself, by possibly falling, so I discontinued that test for her safety," said the officer.

Although Cook told the officer that she had only downed "a few drinks" a blood alcohol level chart provided by indicate that she would have had to consume well over nine alcoholic drinks to be considered legally drunk based on her weight, which was recorded as 250 pounds at the time of her arrest, as indicated in the chart below.

Cook only received probation for the DUI while the marijuana possession and paraphernalia charges were dropped. Police also recovered a nearly empty bottle of whiskey and a metal smoking device from her car.

Despite the severity of this report the church leadership said it was their duty as Christians to forgive her for the 2010 incident and intimated that their investigation into Cook's background had revealed it was an anomaly and she did not have a problem. They also chose not to share this information with the wider convention of church delegates who elected Cook to the high church office, according to The Washington Post.

A blood alcohol level chart.
A blood alcohol level chart. | (Photo: Screen Grab via

"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," the diocese said in a statement.

Some critics, however, disagree with the church's conclusion that the 2010 DUI was not an indication of a larger problem.

"This is a woman who registered a 0.27 percent BAC in 2010, with an empty whisky bottle and drug paraphernalia in her car when arrested. BTW, what does a 0.27 percent look like: BAC 0.20–0.29 percent — stupor, loss of understanding, Impaired sensations, possibility of falling unconscious, severe motor impairment, loss of consciousness, memory blackout," wrote Dave Paisley on

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

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