Standing Committee asks Maryland bishop suffragan to resign

Attorney says request is ‘under advisement right now’

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jan 30, 2015

[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.

Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, who remains on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into her involvement in a fatal accident, has been as by the diocesan standing committee to resign. Photo: Diocese of Maryland

Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, who remains on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into her involvement in a fatal accident, has been asked by the diocesan standing committee to resign. Photo: Diocese of Maryland

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.


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Comments (23)

  1. I would hope, and yes pray that BP. Cook consider her actions in asking for the Grand Jury process.
    I understand her desire in attempting to lessen any “jail” time, however it would appear to me that
    there is a pattern of either denial or a sense of privilege being expressed here. Probation in cases
    like this are rarely successful, and in her case her continued life style which as led to this tragedy
    would lead one to believe that even now she is incapable of taking FULL responsibility for her
    curent situation. For everyone’s safety, including hers she needs to be placed where she can
    do not further harm. As to continuing as a bishop or clergy it would appear that is unlikely, I
    would assume on ecclesiastical grounds.

    1. James McArthur says:

      Maybe the church is finally acknowledging that clergy are employees, not just called.. We are all called to do something. No one is privileged or should be considered as privileged.
      That is really the only way to help someone.
      Speaking for myself, I have already experienced what happens to the privileged and those around them.
      Honesty is the only way, and tough love is not easy.
      Bp. Cook has along way to go, and as person in recovery, only God and surrendering to God can help, no matter what the position people have bestowed.

  2. Judith Wood says:

    I hope and pray that Bishop Cook and her family receive the support and help that they need to deal with the problem of alcohol and the unfavorable results that substance abuse can cause. Yes, she caused a fatal accident, but God’s love needs to shine through, both for the family of the victim and her and her family as well. Hopefully, being properly cared for she can resume her duties. After all, we are a “Christian Body” or our we?

    1. Anne Folan says:

      If by “unfavorable results” you mean: the agonizing violent death of an innocent citizen who was left to die on the roadway in the freezing cold by his killer, and the widowing and orphaning of his wife and children, and the heartbreak of his parents and siblings and friends . . . then yes, I hope the “unfavorable results” are “dealt with.” And yes, “God’s love needs to shine through,” but how about we let God do God’s job, instead of presuming to do it for Him, and we focus on our own, which is to ensure justice (not to be confused with vengeance) and public safety. Geez louise.

    2. Sally Rowan says:

      Judith – what do you mean by “God’s love needs to shine through?” Do you mean Heather, if convicted, should not have to go through any of the prison terms that go with her charges? It sounds like you’re saying she should be forgiven without any kind of punishment, legal or otherwise? If that is what you mean, how would letting her go with no punishment be an example of God’s love for Tom and his grieving family? Yes…but? How long would she need to be “properly cared for” before she could “resume her duties” as a bishop?
      It seems that part of this whole problem is the search committee’s not being concerned about her “first time” drunk driving with blood alcohol of 0.27, when 0.08 is the sobriety limit. That is not a level at which someone is likely to be functional (and she wasn’t, according to the police report). They did not have a long-dry alcoholic on the committee, one who knows the tricks of the trade for interviews, etc. (I hope they learned not to let that go, but will have long-dry alcoholics on committees interviewing future candidates, including those applying for seminary.)
      Forgiveness, either God’s or fellow man’s, does not eliminate punishment, including imprisonment, or deposing, or restriction.
      “Yes….but God’s love needs to shine through.” Would this apply to an elementary school teacher who has sexually abused the young children in his classes by having them wear skimpy costumes in drama, including taking pictures of them without underwear? ‘Yes, he abused children, but God’s love needs to shine through for the children’s families and for him and his wife and 2 kids’? So he shouldn’t be punished, and he’s welcome to teach young children again, since he has been so good in the past? (“Well, no, it actually wasn’t my first time, but….”) [I know a case of that, and he recognizes it was wrong, and is truly sorry – he’s even a Christian who was involved in a church, went to Bible studies and recognizes it as “sin,” not just wrong. He’s in therapy about it. And he’s sentenced to 15 years in prison.]
      “After all, we are a ‘Christian body,’ or are we?” Does forgiveness mean no kind of punishment from or by ‘Christian bodies,’ especially to members of them?

    3. Tod Roulette says:

      Feed My Sheep, not ‘harm my sheep’. If she cannot do that–she needs to sit in the pews. God’s people are too precious for careless leaders. She needs help, but not at the expense of other persons rights and safety.

  3. Anne Bay says:

    I just heard the audio of Heather Cook’s Oct.2010 court appearance for her 2010 DUI. So many things noticed. As a person in Recovery for many years, it is clear this is one very sick person. True to the Disease of Alcoholism, she masterfully even manipulated the Judge when he tried to pin her down about A.A. meetings. He even reworded the question due to her evasiveness. And her terminology in responding to the question makes it clear she has no clue what A.A. is all about…or cares. She had a very smooth and experienced lawyer, and he did a masterful-yes–repeat-masterful job of representing her. Unfortunately, for Heather, she would have done better with a hard nose, no nonsense, experienced A.A. person. Tom Palermo might be alive today if she had had major help to get her out of denial and into being able to go deep inside herself to deal with her very real Disease of Alcoholism. Instead, she got off with a $300.00 fine. You can hear the kind judge trying to be “nice” and the lawyer doing his job of getting her off. But the Disease of Alcoholism is a physiological progressive disease that is fatal if not arrested. The Disease of Alcoholism is not “nice”-cunning , baffling, and powerful. She didn’t need forgiveness-she needed a hard core no-nonsense 12 step recovery program and A.A. -Big Book, sponsor, the whole nine yards. And I don’t know what the clinical social worker was doing that she said she was seeing once a week for over a year???? Most licensed counselors won’t even begin to see someone for therapy until they have a minimum of one to two years real sobriety with a program and some won’t even then. It takes a lot of work for an alcoholic to get a program to maintain their sobriety. What’s worse is that her BAL was .27!!! Any person in recovery can tell you that that in itself was a red flag-and after a year of “counseling?'” C’mon. Also, what about those who were close to her and knew about her history of Alcoholism keeping quiet during her examination to become bishop? They are also cupable. Every “functioning” Alcoholic has at least 15 people around them who assist them in being “functional.” She should have never even been considered for the office of bishop. The fact that the convention that conducted the voting on the candidates was also deprived of the true facts about her history of Alcoholism and that is inexcusable. I’m surprised that the people at that convention aren’t raising holy “Heck” right now. That was not acceptable on any level. Electing a person bishop requires total knowledge of their background, etc. etc. I have hopes that the Diocese will get some education on Alcoholism/Addiction by some real experts and have parish meetings for the whole family on how Alcoholism works in the alcoholic and how it works on the family and friends and others who are related to or have a history with or know and alcoholic. 50 per cent of Alcoholics are children of alcoholics. This is a family disease and everyone needs to be in recovery. A.A. , Al-anon, and Alateen programs are seasoned, historical, and solid. Just the literature alone in all of those programs give tremendous knowledge and insight that is unique to the Disease of Alcoholism and how people are affected by it. I hope Heather will resign though.She really needs the people who care for her to give her the solid truth and she needs to focus just on her recovery. We don’t need any more Tom Palermo situations. Such a tragedy that should never have happened. Tom Palermo was an incredible father, husband and person. What a tragedy.

  4. Selena Smith says:

    Employer asking for the employee’s resignation: the secular way. How could or should the Episcopal Church be different in its approach? Then the ex-employee will be sent to a therapist (if not already done) who will tell her that she should lose the license to practice: the way of the state. How could or should the Episcopal Church be different in its approach?

    Is the process of reconciliation only for other provinces (South Africa) in the Communion? This tragedy is at least about a bicyclist & family and a clergy person. It is beginning to feel and appear that it is about the Episcopal Church distancing itself and looking good and feeling good about itself. Is that disowning process an example of addictive behavior or at least being part of the process of addiction? How could or would we expect the Episcopal Church’s approach to be different, maybe to look to a higher power/God and to be more of God?

  5. Tod Roulette says:

    I find it very very disturbing and suspicious that Mark Hansen who caused so much pain and deceit and financial harm to the Episcopal Church is a supporter of Bishop Cook and put up a significant amount of money towards her bail. She was elected on a fourth ballot. FOURTH! I cannot imagine that the other candidates had nearly killed anyone previous to the election, nor had been criminally charged for marijuana and DUI. FOURTH ballot?

    I seriously doubt that any clergy of color would have been allowed any of the chances and privileges Cook has been granted–by the church or the legal system. I suppose it is not in her best interest to resign because the Diocese of Maryland will be liable for her legal fees. Unless of course, Mark Hansen can rally his break away Anglican group to help her. But, I greatly doubt that–since she is a FEMALE. LAWD, what a sad and tragic mess. The big story is a man is dead, kids have no father, wife no man and the legal system continues to cast a blind and unfair eye towards whites.

    1. Sally Rowan says:

      Tod – Mark Hansen did not go the Anglican route. He was defrocked by TEC and now has non-priestly church-oriented work. So that Anglican group’s wallets aren’t applicable targets for his hand.

      The breakaway Anglicans are not settled on women’s ordination. There are people on either side of the question. The ordained women are recognized by the full communion, but the clergy who don’t go with women’s ordination are not required to hire any women, etc.

      I don’t think you’re being fair to the legal system on this. Heather Cook is currently at a dry-out place instead of prison, and here’s hoping there’s success. BUT it does NOT mean there will be no trial, or that she will not go to prison if/when convicted. There was a lot of disappointment while no charges were announced day after day. The head of the Baltimore court system was elected in November, sworn in the night before making the Friday announcement of the charges against Heather Cook, and it’s an extensive list of charges. It’s thorough enough that if the jury doesn’t think it’s X level of severity, there are more layers available for conviction, X-1, X-2. They also have permission to use another issue not on the charge list. The charges weren’t announced sooner because the prosecutors wanted to have a full list and built-in protection from losing the whole thing.
      This new court Head Honcho has a major case sitting on the desk when she starts the position, and I’ll be very surprised if she’s oh-so-sympathetically-lenient. She went and talked to Tom Palermo’s wife (and probably others were with her) before the charges were announced publicly. I do hope it can be settled out of court, if the Palermo family doesn’t want it dragged out. But I don’t think this judge would go easy to get the out of court settlement, and I don’t think the defense team would expect a lighter punishment from a judge than from a jury. I’m curious to see which way it will go.

      She’s also black, and she was not expected to win the election. This case isn’t one to let go of easily. That sounds crass, but I’m sure it will have a bearing toward not “cast[ing] a blind and unfair eye towards whites.”

  6. Doug Desper says:

    Being compassionate, forgiving and anything else Christ-like does not require that we have amnesia when we relate to other people. In Bishop Cook’s case much was known by key leaders but given a pass in an effort to seem like generous and enlightened Christians. The seriousness of that self-indulgence is now obvious and can’t be assuaged by more talk of compassion and forgiveness. A life was taken. Lives are ruined. The integrity of an election as a bishop was compromised. The trust of leadership is tainted. Nothing good has come from being oblivious.
    Apparently the secular media is even now uncovering far deeper problems of dysfunction. It is coming to light that Bishop Cook was known to have substance use issues and that this fact was known by church authorities but not disseminated in the discernment process. The Washington Post reports that Bishop Cook was suspected of being drunk during her pre-consecration dinner and that the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Sutton knew.
    Aside from this let’s look at the position this places other dioceses in. Other dioceses had to consent to Bishop Cook’s election. It truly looks like such a consent is a mere rubber stamp requirement considering what the dioceses do not get to know as they are being asked to elevate a bishop.
    Every bit of this could have been avoided.

  7. James McArthur says:

    Diocese of Long Island ask its churches to have special collection for family of deceased. Is this an attempt to get the family to say what great people Episcopalians are? The church is going to have to pay big time for this as they should. And all the money should come from church coffers.
    Time to man up. Mistakes made, need to be addressed, or just keep enabling, in the name of God.
    What did Jesus say about the narrow gate, and many who think they will be in heaven are going to be surprised and disappointed.

  8. Anne Bay says:

    From all the investigative news coming forth about the vetting process for Heather Cook, it’s clear that many red flags of her Alcoholism were seen, but those in charge of making her bishop chose to pass them off in order to make her bishop. Several articles have been printed in several newspapers that she got drunk at her pre-consecration dinner. In the article it also states Bishop Sutton made a point to inform Bishop Schori about it and she stated she would speak with Heather. However, two days later the consecration went through. The whole process of Heather Cook’s road to become bishop gets worse and worse. So sad.

  9. Rev. Lee L Cunningham, OSL says:

    I’m a United Methodist pastor who has come home to Mother Anglicanism in retirement. I’m also a recovering alcoholic with nearly 20 years of sobriety, one day at a time. It is not my place to pass judgment on nor excuse Bishop Cook’s behavior, nor to second guess the body which decided she had the gifts and graces to enter the Episcopacy. Like the recent Superbowl loss by the Seahawks, there is plenty of after-the-fact criticism to go around. What I do know is alcoholism is an equal-opportunity killer. Over the years I have met everyone from homeless street people to clergy and judges in the recovery fellowship. It is a progressive, degenerative, incurable, but arrestable disease. Part of the disease is denial and dishonesty. I cannot help, nor am I “morally responsible” for being an alcoholic. I am powerless before this disease. I am, however, responsible for admitting my powerlessness and seeking help. The first step of the 12 steps is in many ways the hardest. I am also responsible for the damage done to others by my drinking. Being addicted is not a moral choice, but it is also NOT an excuse for the consequences of my addiction. In fact, protecting the alcoholic from the consequences of their drinking is an all-to-common way of enabling the disease. There have been times when my counsel to concerned families whose loved one was arrested for a DUI was “Don’t bail them out! Let him/her stew in jail for a bit. Perhaps that will convince them their drinking is out of control.” If Bishop Cook had been able to admit that she was powerless over alcohol, got a sponsor, worked the steps of an ongoing spiritual program of recovery, we might not have been having this conversation. As a Bishop with the disease of alcoholism who is in recovery, God could have used her mightily in ministry to other alcoholics and their families. God can still use her mightily even defrocked and in prison. That will depend upon whether or not this will truly be her turning point…

    1. Judith Wood says:

      Amen

  10. Frank Riggio-Preston says:

    Heather Cook needs to resign now with no additional delay. Forgiveness requires confession, penance and accepting punishmentThere was a terrible lack of leadership in the entire process from church leadership. There must be a question in their suitability to lead after allowing the consecration to move forward and to not allow the information during the selection process to go to convention for a true election. The convention was duped and the consenting bishops were duped.

    Now the PB needs to undo the consecration which she can do and do it quickly before the Episcopal Church election process looks even worse then it already does.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Frank: This election and consent/consecration process is probably the most recent extreme failure of truth-telling in recent memory. The responses are showing that no one owns their part of the mess — except the delegates who elected Heather Cook and who are now righteously indignant. That’s a good start, and will be even better when they demand resignations and pursue Title IV actions in their diocese. In no other world than the Church can such leaders retain their job. The evidence is in and it stinks. It’s showing that marginally qualified clergy can be cheap-graced with opportunities even though a child abuser (Bede Parry), or given opportunities although convicted and repeatedly caught abusing substances (Heather Cook—and others). Perhaps the Maryland delegation will prove that truth will prevail and pursue actions to demand new diocesan leadership, even up to the office of the Presiding Bishop. This is not small and nothing less than removal of leadership should be part of the cure. Death and the ruination of lives has occurred. Let’s hope that the death of truth doesn’t rest there as well.

  11. Ted Martin says:

    Resign!!!!! I should hope so, IF she does not resign, that will be the “last straw” as far as validity for The Episcopal Church goes.

  12. Anne Bay says:

    More and more information is coming forth about Heather Cook’s history of Alcoholism. There couldn’t have been more clear red flags, but the people that needed to intervene and assist her to get into treatment failed to do so. That’s not uncommon, but it is true. The Grand Jury indicted her with additional new charges which make her potential years in prison add up to 39 years and ups the fines to $30,000.00. An alumni of the all girls highschool where she was chaplain several years ago has come forward with detailed facts about Heather driving she and another student while drunk and relating how scared they were due to her eratic driving. So, Heather has a long long history of Alcoholism, and probably more people will come forward to relay their experiences with her when she was intoxicated. While she is not a unique Alcoholic-it’s all typical of an Alcoholic-it’s proving to be a bigger tragedy than originally presented. Yes, she needs to resign, but the amount of mis-management of her vetting and background checks to be cleared to run for bishop are also tragically at fault. The bottom line is it takes someone trained in Alcoholism to determine if a person is capable of fulfilling job requirements-whatever the job is. Also, one person shared that after her 2010 DUI she only went to group meetings once a week for two months to address her drinking, so she didn’t get proper treatment or go into a program in 2010-she has been hiding her
    Alcoholism ever since, and anyone who understands and knows the Disease of Alcoholism knows how well that works!!! But she had lots and lots of enablers and still does!!!

  13. John Dickert says:

    Last time I checked it was Innocent till proven guilty. Let justice be served. I am against any forced resignation and I am ashamed of those who are pushing for it. I wonder if it was a man instead of a woman how this would play out. If it was me, I’d refuse to resign until guilt or innocense was proved in a court of law.

    Sometimes you guys are just plain mean.

    John Albert Dickert
    Christ Church Cathedral
    Cincinnati, Ohio

    1. Doug Desper says:

      John. There is a man-sized dent on Heather Cook’s car. There is a caved-in windshield. There are witnesses who chased her down. There was a crushed bike and dying father left on the road. There is a drunken bishop. There was dishonesty in her election process and she did not disclose her past “problems” as suggested in the pre-election walkabouts. For these and other such reasons people just do not see pastoral responsibilities in her future. Color me simple.

  14. Anne Bay says:

    The “Living Church” magazine has three articles about Heather Cook and the ramifications her Alcoholism is having on the Episcopal Church and its policies about the examination process for bishop and its policies for dealing with alcohol and drug abuse among it’s members and clergy. The Presiding Bishop has put Heather on “Restricted” status concerning her ordination status. Title IV-4 is the disciplinary status of Heather Cook for an unlimited time. She is not allowed to do any priestly/bishop functions whatsoever. She is not in good standing in the church. The Diocese of Maryland has put Heather on paid leave-apparently she will continue to receive her $130,000 per year salary for the unlimited future. Most of the recoverying Alcoholics I have known over the years did not have “paid leave” from their job- some had medical disability if needed, but that doesn’t last long. Most recoverying alcoholics go through a lot of problems financially in their desire to get sober. Most low-cost Recovery programs have waiting lists and not enough beds for in patient and not enough places for outpatients. A lot needs to be done in this area. No wonder she can afford a fancy rehab. As a person in recovery for many years most of the people I have known who got sober went to programs that cost 0 – sliding scale-they didn’t have the money to go to fancy rehabs, but they had the determinationt to work a program, and although no alcoholic is “gleeful” at going through what it takes to achieve enough sobriety to work a program to stay sober,they went to whatever rehab they could get a place in and worked extremely hard to get sober. So far, I have seen none of the desire to get sober from Heather Cook. A “wake-up” call is what she termed the DUI where she had a .27 bal in 2010-that’s more than a wake-up call!-that’s serious and life threatening Alcoholism-both to her and those she has anything to do with-and as it turned out the person she killed while drunk she had never met. So, Alcoholism is a progressive complex physiological/psychological /spiritual/ genetic/ fatal if not treated Disease. But she didn’t have any direction from her Diocese to get into a rehab program and sober living and a follow up outpatient program and thorough examination of her Disease and what she was doing to maintain sobriety when she came up for nomination to bishop. The Bishop of Nebraska said that while he is at General Convention he will abstain from alcohol to show support for all people in Recovery. It’s a start.

  15. Jake Bradley says:

    A tragedy for all concerned. The negligence of the TEC is astounding. This most likely could have been avoided if the HC went into in-patient rehab following the 2010 DWI. My deepest sympathies to the Palermo family . It seems like Tom Palermo was a great husband, son, and father.

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