[Episcopal News Service] The Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland wants Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook to resign her position in the diocese in the wake of her involvement in a fatal car accident.
“The Standing Committee has concluded that Bishop Heather Cook can no longer function effectively in her position as Bishop Suffragan. Therefore, we respectfully call for her resignation from her service to the Diocese,” the committee said in a Jan. 28 statement.
The committee’s request is “under advisement right now,” Cook’s attorney, David Irwin, told Episcopal News Service Jan. 30. “We just got the letter a couple of days ago.”
The Standing Committee said the unanimous decision was made Jan. 22 “after significant and prayerful discernment, and with due and proper consideration of the best interests of the Diocese and its people.” The committee sent Cook a certified letter on Jan. 26 asking for her resignation.
In a Jan. 28 press release, Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton said, “It was clear that our lay and clergy leaders on the Standing Committee felt that the best interests of the diocese would be served were Heather to resign. Since this does not impede the Episcopal Church’s investigation into the matter, it is my hope Heather will see the wisdom in this recommendation.”
The diocese “is acting as swiftly as it can in the context of the Episcopal Church’s disciplinary action,” the release said, adding that “… nothing prevents her from resigning as an employee of the Diocese of Maryland.”
Cook spent six days in a Baltimore jail after being charged in connection with a fatal car accident in which she allegedly was intoxicated and texting as she struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, 41. She is also accused of leaving the scene for more than 30 minutes before returning and being arrested. She is now out on bail and at an alcohol-treatment facility, her lawyer said.
The diocese said shortly after the accident that Cook was involved.
The bishop faces eight charges, including four criminal counts of negligent manslaughter by vehicle, criminal negligent manslaughter by vehicle, negligently driving under the influence resulting in a homicide and negligent homicide involving an auto or boat while impaired. Those four charges carry a combined maximum penalty of 21 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
The other four charges are traffic offenses of failing to remain at an accident resulting in death, failing to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in bodily injury, using a text-messaging device while driving causing an accident with death or serious injury, and driving under the influence of alcohol.
Cook was formally charged Jan. 9 and turned herself in later that day after an arrest warrant was issued. She was booked into jail and a $2.5 million bail was set. A judge later refused to lower the bail amount, according to news reports.
Cook was bailed out Jan. 25 by Mark H. Hansen, a deposed Episcopal priest whom she referred to as her “steady companion” and a “passionate Anglican” in an autobiographical statement submitted as part of the search process that resulted in her being elected suffragan in May 2014. The bishop said in her autobiographical statement that she and Hansen had dated in their 20s and reconnected in 2012.
Hansen posted $35,000 in collateral and signed a $215,000 promissory note agreeing to pay $1,000 a month, according to the Baltimore Sun. The paper reported that the only condition of her release is that she not drive.
Cook returned that day to Father Martin’s Ashley, a drug and alcohol treatment facility near Havre de Grace, Maryland, where she had spent 12 days after the accident before being charged, Irwin told ENS.
A preliminary hearing had been scheduled for Feb. 6 but Irwin said Cook withdrew her request for that hearing. The next step in the legal process is up to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who said Jan. 9 when she charged Cook that she intended to present the case to a grand jury.
Meanwhile, The Episcopal Church’s disciplinary process is in motion. Title IV of the Canons of The Episcopal Church governs ecclesiastical discipline of clergy members. Canon 17 of Title IV outlines the disciplinary process for bishops.
There is also an ongoing review of the process that resulted in Cook’s election, said Sutton in a Jan. 13 pastoral letter.
Cook was arrested in 2010 in Caroline County in the Eastern Shore for driving under the influence of alcohol and for marijuana possession. Cook pleaded guilty to drunken driving in that incident, and the prosecution of marijuana possession charge was dropped. A judge sentenced her to supervised probation and ordered her to pay a $300 fine. Court records available online do not note the length or conditions of Cook’s probation.
Cook disclosed the arrest to diocesan leaders during the bishop suffragan search process, according to a diocesan statement released after the Dec. 27 accident, but the entire convention that elected Cook on May 2, 2014, however, was not told about it.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.