On December 27, 2014, at 2:30 in the afternoon in suburban Baltimore, the inebriated Episcopal Bishop Heather E. Cook’s Suburu struck and killed a much loved 41-year-old married father of two, cyclist Thomas Palermo, shattering her front windshield. She drove away, a hit and run, returning about 30 minutes later.
Arrested and charged with driving under the influence, causing an accident due to texting while driving, and leaving the scene of a fatal accident, she was later released on $2.5 million bail. Now a grand jury has issued an indictment including manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and homicide by motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.
Cook, 58, registered a shocking .22 breathalyzer reading shortly after the fatal collision, close to the .27 reading she registered in a 2010 arrest that Episcopalian leaders failed to reveal to the delegates who elected her last September to the high-ranking position.
Bishop Heather — in today’s Episcopal Church many bishops prefer the first-name address — and her enablers create a fascinating tableau of the sketchy contempo Episcopagans.
In the Episcopal Church latitude — the proud tradition that doctrinal rulings that constrain reason and freedom of the believer are neither necessary nor salutary — gives the clergy license. On account of an intramural crisis of faith starting in the 1960s, the perimeter has expanded to Episcopagan, in which heresy and moral abandon are winked at or even hip.
Headquartered in Manhattan, the Church seems to be in the hands of louche, highly political stewards.
Since the 2003 ordination of celebrity narcissist Bishop V. Gene Robinson (of New Hampshire), the Church has been drying up, going from 2.3 to 1.9 million active members in the last decade, with 40 percent fewer baptisms than in 2003.
Bad boy Bishops James Pike (California, d. 1969) and Paul Moore, Jr. (New York, d. 2003) — not figures of legendary probity such as Bishops Anson Phelps Stokes (Massachusetts, d. 1986) or Henry Hobson (Southern Ohio, d. 1983) — seem to be Church models.
Episcopaganism is New Church, not Low or High Church. It’s the Church of Love and Inclusion.
But the Love is not working. Episcopal churches often remain open because their endowments act as embalming fluid. Many wayward stewards seem to be living well off shrinking legacies.
Police say at the time of her 2010 DUI arrest Cook was found to be in possession of a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of wine, and two bags of pot. According to the police report, she had vomit running down the front of her shirt and was driving on the rim of one wheel, the tire having been shredded.
In picture after picture, Heather looks like an overweight, middle-aged preppy with a big drinking problem. We learn of a shady, defrocked ex-minister who is Heather’s newish boyfriend, whom she helped get a church sinecure and who may have met her bail with church funds.
It takes willful blindness not to see a problem. Yet the nation’s Episcopal leaders waved Heather on to the second-highest ranking position in the Maryland diocese. The Church’s legal and financial liabilities are not yet known. The 2010 DUI was a red flag flapping loudly, as many have commented since. Did anyone ask her about treatment after the 2010 DUI? Did she mention that she resumed drinking and currently drinks?
Nobody picked up on this? The Diocese now admits that Cook may have been “inebriated” at a private dinner before her consecration.
I’m sure church leaders didn’t want to offend her. Everyone involved here is very nice, not the sort of people to hurt the feelings of a well-known Reverend Canon, the daughter of a prominent Baltimore pastor and St. Timothy’s music teacher, an Eastern Shore figure, already embarrassed, who might become a colleague.
For Heather, it was apparently a cozy, insider relationship to begin with. The four finalists were all women. A New York canon at St. John the Divine, Victoria Sirota, described as “one of those rare people who had a true aura,” was to great dismay passed over.
For whatever reason, Cook was selected to be suffragan, or deputy, to The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton Bishop of Maryland, a smooth, well-credentialed, upper-class black man. His diocesan priorities and choices in personnel are clear. The diocesan website features “Racism in the Anglican and Episcopal Church of Maryland.”
Sutton warned the Episcopal Church’s diversity-driven national leader, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, about Cook’s drinking — but did so the day before her ordination. They all — the primate, the bishop of Maryland, everyone — seemed to know Heather had a drinking problem even leading up to her ordination, yet they ordained her anyway.
Bishop Heather and the Diocese do not deserve our forgiveness or sympathy for her wanton behavior. She appears to be a likeable, sick, ambitious minister’s daughter who had very bad luck.
Innocent and dead bicyclist Thomas Palermo and his family had bad luck too, much more so, and not of their own free will.