Heather Cook

Drunk Driving Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook Released Early

on May 15, 2019

Deposed Episcopal Church Bishop Heather Cook, who infamously killed Baltimore cyclist Thomas Palermo while driving drunk in 2014, has been released from prison after serving 3 1/2 years of her seven year sentence. IRD covered Cook’s criminal negligent manslaughter charge (among others), sentencing, and deposition from ministry, which are all viewable here.

Cook, who served as Bishop Suffragan for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, functioned as the second highest official in the diocese. Her drunken driving history led to significant soul searching within the denomination and subsequent policy changes enacted by General Convention, including how candidates for episcopal positions are vetted.

Two news outlets went different directions in their coverage of Cook’s release. Writing for Religion News Service, veteran religion scribe Adele Banks authored a feature piece looking at Cook’s expressed desire to make amends and quotes numerous church officials on the topic of substance abuse. Banks writes that Cook, a self-described “poster child for alcoholism,” hopes to advocate for women who are in prison and those who struggle with addiction.

“I believe God doesn’t waste anything,” Cook told RNS, in a statement that is theologically correct but still uncomfortable to hear from her as the convicted offender. It is perhaps not the message I would want to read from her if my family member had been the one killed.

The Baltimore Sun, in contrast, published a hard news story: “Ex-bishop Heather Cook released from prison after serving half of sentence for fatal drunken driving crash”. Unlike the RNS feature, the Sun piece quotes a brief statement from the family of Palermo and their belief that justice has not been served. After his death while riding in a marked bicycle lane that the intoxicated Cook swerved into while texting, Palermo left behind a wife and two young children.

The Sun notes that witnesses said Cook left the scene of the crash and did not return until half an hour later. A Breathalyzer test at the time registered her blood alcohol level at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving.

“The case roiled Baltimore’s close-knit cycling community and sent shock waves through an Episcopal Church already suffering declines in membership nationwide,” Jonathan Pitts reports.

The Associated Press also ran a short news report on Cook’s release, and the Baltimore CBS affiliate WJZ ran a segment which I have included below.

  1. Comment by David on May 15, 2019 at 5:00 pm

    Therefore, we should not allow female bishops? First they came for the gay clergy and now the women.

  2. Comment by Steve on May 15, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    Far as I can tell the article presents the basic facts without moralizing. Your idea of the moral of the story isn’t very sophisticated. The Episcopal Church is picky about who it will ordain, putting candidates through a demanding process called “discernment”. Tell me, how well do you think this process worked in this instance? Then consider what that means for the Episcopal Church as a whole. Are they choosing people for their character and spirituality? If not, what are they choosing them for? The more you look into this story, the worse it looks.

  3. Comment by John Sweeney on May 18, 2019 at 12:52 am

    ‘Demanding process’ for selecting a bishop? Remember the diocese (northern Michigan) who nominated a bishop who had been an ordained Buddhist monk. Or Bishop Spong who famously denied that Jesus existed? Or the Presiding Bishop who’d been an Episcopalian for exactly seven years before being ordained?

  4. Comment by Steve on May 21, 2019 at 8:46 am

    If you know anybody who is trying to become ordained, you know that they go through a long arduous process of “discernment”. Given end results such as you note, one has to think the process is basically a sham; in the end people seem selected based on considerations of identity politics, cronyism and keeping the number of clergy down (keeping clergy paychecks and pensions up).

  5. Comment by Palamas on May 15, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    You have real problems with reading comprehension, don’t you?

  6. Comment by David on May 15, 2019 at 8:27 pm

    A common pattern on this website is to have an account of some “unusual” clergy person with the implication, written or otherwise, that this represents the evil liberals—a form of guilt by association or schadenfreude.

  7. Comment by Steve on May 15, 2019 at 10:53 pm

    And you make gross generalizations with either no knowledge of or concern for the actual facts of the matter. Heather Cook was no outlier, she was endorsed by basically the entire Episcopal establishment, possibly the most thoroughly vetted candidate ever. The Episcopal Church believes in apostolic succession, the idea that their bishops are ordained in an unbroken chain all the way to Christ himself. Wikipedia has a complete listing of the connections in the chain. When Heather Cook was ordained, the following bishops were consecrators: Schori, Sutton, Shand, Ihloff, Rabb, Adams, Goff, Budde, Eastman and Parsley, a record turnout of the Episcopalian elite, from all over the country, endorsing her character and spirituality.

  8. Comment by Loren Golden on May 16, 2019 at 11:54 pm

    Late last year, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse published a book entitled, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal (https://www.amazon.com/Them-Hate-Each-Other-Heal/dp/1250193680/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=).  I strongly encourage you to read it, sir.  I think it will do you good, if you can get past the bitter cynicism you have so frequently displayed on the pages of this website.

  9. Comment by Joe M on May 19, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    And I strongly encourage you to realize we don’t have to hate people to want high standards and a just penal system that does not favor one group over another. Individuals can and should forgive Cook as grace enables them, but her sentence being halved? The state’s job is not to be nice, but to administer justice. Whether you are rich or poor, female or male, gay or straight, Moslem or Episcopalian, or Black or White.

  10. Comment by Loren Golden on May 19, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    Sir (Joe M), you misunderstand my point.  I was addressing David’s cynical attitude (you will kindly note that it was his response to which I clicked “Reply”, not Steve’s) that he has frequently displayed toward Evangelicals posting on this site, not whether grace and forgiveness should be shown to Ms. Cook, or the wisdom of the Maryland judicial system in reducing her sentence.

  11. Comment by Diane on May 17, 2019 at 12:17 am

    An associate minister in a NC Baptist Church was arrested on federal charges of creating child porn with a minor female and disseminating it. How ‘ bout you make that a story? This pastor served a large downtown church for almost a decade….well-vetted by those Southern Baptists!

    It’s in the news this week – but I notice you’re not covering the abominable sins of conservative heterosexual pastors.

    The Episcopal priest was not let off the hook. She was judged accordingly and served prison time…I get that the victim’s family would probably want to see her put away for life. But that’s not how the law works. I think you just like to pick on mainstream churches.

  12. Comment by Patrick98 on May 17, 2019 at 7:56 am

    Dianne, you make a good point. That being said, the IRD has its focus not on all of Christianity (try the Christian Post, Christian Century, or Christianity Today for that) but on certain specific branches of Christianity – the Episcopal Church USA being one. I have said this before: The Baptists are now having their “people who live in glass houses” moment. It remains to be seen if they do anything because of belief in congregational autonomy (their term). That is problematic because the term “autonomy” literally means “self-law”. People can submit to God’s law, or try to be autonomous. There are consequences to both.

  13. Comment by Patrick98 on May 17, 2019 at 7:58 am

    Oops, Diane, I am sorry I misspelled your name in the above post. It was a typo putting in an extra “n”. My apologies to you.

  14. Comment by Steve on May 17, 2019 at 9:04 am

    You show me where that person you mention was 1) a bishop 2) where 10 bishops, including the presiding bishop, flew in to lay hands on her during her ordination. That person you name is NOT highly vetted, not an indictment of the judgment of that entire denomination. At this point, the Episcopal Church is all about identity politics and cronyism, and thus Heather Cook. There’s lots more to this matter, but I’ll spare you if you can spare me.

  15. Comment by Diane on May 17, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Senior citizen here, In my experience there are often people in institutions, secular or sacred, free church or hierarchal-type churches who are enablers of behaviors in others that put others at risk. I would be inclined to believe that there were Episcopalians who knew this woman’s human frailty that needed tending to (discipline) long before this tragic accident. My church experience has been in free churches, where there’s congregational autonomy. However, there are conference ministers, regional ministers, denominational “general ministers & presidents”. I left a church that had great pride that a pastor-son of a seminary president agreed to their call to serve as a senior minister. I had a good hunch from my lay networking that this pastor might be involved sexually with young people. I left the church, but told my friends with kids in the church to pay close attention. I had no proof, so I would’ve been charged with slander if I made allegations. The pastor eventually got thrown out of the church for other reasons and sent on to another state. I spoke privately with the lead pastor in that church to please keep an eye on him in terms of youth work & explained my reasons. Two months later the married pastor of two was arrested on federal child porn charges. Then I learned from clergy friends – who’d kept quiet and said nothing – that this pastor had been caught alone with a young camper in a cabin at the area youth camp. I also learned that other clergy knew this pastor had given a ring to this young person. He was removed from youth responsibilities in camping programs – but no one says word one to the congregation or the next state to which he was passed along. I called the FBI as soon as I heard the rumors (after the arrest). They told me the pastor had a profile that nearly assured he’d been sexually active with youth, but unfortunately, no youth came forward. Four years later, I met a young college graduate who told me of still being “in love” with this child porn pastor. Turned out, this was the individual who was in the camp cabin – who told me, yes, they’d had sex in the church.

    I am repulsed that clergy who knew far more and could’ve done far more never did. I’m aware, too, that several clergy were also aware that the denominational head pastor was having sex with young people. It was a guarded secret that people in leadership positions did nothing about. We see the same thing in educational institutions. Whether it’s an alcoholic, a sexual abuser of children, or whatever behavior that harms others, it angers and grieves me that those in leadership positions do nothing when they have knowledge of harmful behavior. It’s not just the Episcopal church. Free church communions have their own leadership networks that work similarly. Anyone who knows of such harmful behaviors should call it out. I did all I could, though I didn’t have information available to me as a layperson. But clergy outside the local autonomous church were most certainly aware of facts that should’ve been reported.

  16. Comment by Steve on May 17, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    You keep making this “everybody does it” argument. But no, its different in this case, the people who should have reported this lady were the most elite people in the denomination. This is a fish that rotted at the head, the same people who set the identity politics agenda of the denomination. It speaks to the judgment and character of the denomination as a whole. Why would anybody follow them or defend them with whataboutism like you do except from amoral identity politics tribalism?

  17. Comment by Steve on May 17, 2019 at 4:54 pm

    Perhaps perusing this article might help:
    I could have stopped Cook’s ordination, bishop says, but it would have caused an uproar
    Such action would have resulted in “howls around the world,” says Bishop Sutton, giving a fresh account of his knowledge of Heather Cook’s alcoholism and his belief she was under supervision by the church’s national leader.
    Baltimore Brew
    BY MARK REUTTER 7:18 PM FEB 12, 2015

  18. Comment by George on May 17, 2019 at 8:43 pm

    We should all be reminded by this and other incidences that croziers, crosses, hats and robes are more indicative of political matters than spiritual. Many Episcopalian are not fooled by the trappings and images and are very aware of the spiritual issues that face the church in all its various brands. We will all answer to the Lord Jesus to whom the church belongs. He has not authorized ANY of our various divisions! (He’s Jewish, btw)

  19. Comment by Diane on May 18, 2019 at 12:34 am

    Thanks for the wisdom.

  20. Comment by Laverne MacInnis on May 18, 2019 at 10:24 am

    Alcoholism is a disease. Having said that, once Cook killed someone, all of those who elevated her to a position of power walked away tut-tutting, rather than serving any time with her. THEY were as guilty as she. Had she not been in a position where she had so much to hide, perhaps she would have sought help much sooner. The crux of the matter is discernment. Where was their discernment about her fitness to be a Bishop? A few years after Gene Robinson was made Bishop, he announced he was an alcoholic like it was some kind of noble badge because he went to rehab. It only bolstered my contention of his lack of fitness (I know him personally) to be a Bishop. Where was the discernment in that situation? Gay man becomes Bishop, divorces his partner, announces he’s an alcoholic, becomes parapatetic gadfly and poster child for every outlier gay organization but doesn’t boost church attendance one iota – in fact the drain on church attendance continued at warp speed. How was that for Episcopal discernment?

  21. Comment by barbara on May 20, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    It is a sad fact that the episcopal church has long been on the
    decline.Apart from the heretical bishops (ie Spong et al),the
    spiritual truths have long been ignored by the episcopal
    hierarchy. I left the EC for that reason.

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