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The Case of the Drunk-Driving Bishop

A cyclist killed by a hit-and-run driver. An Episcopal bishop was behind the wheel. Secretly, she had a record

Terrible story from Baltimore.  Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook hit a cyclist with her car, and sped away. He died. Then the story got a lot more complicated:

First Sunday came the news that the driver in the crash was a bishop — the No. 2 Episcopal bishop in the Diocese of Maryland — which initially drew a national audience intrigued by the moral complications of a high-ranking clergy possibly abandoning someone who was hurt. Then Monday and Tuesday came additional detail about an ugly 2010 drunk driving arrest involving Cook, then a priest. Police records show she was so drunk she couldn’t even complete the sobriety tests, had apparently thrown up on her shirt while driving and was driving on only three wheels as one tire had been worn to its rims.

The fact that top church leaders involved in picking Cook as bishop knew of the 2010 incident — though they didn’t share the information with all people voting — intensely divided people who took to the Web to debate whether it should have immediately disqualified her from becoming a bishop.

We don’t yet know if police believe Bishop Cook was drunk when she hit and killed the cyclist, Thomas Palermo, father of two small children. She has not yet been charged. More about the incident:

Many Baltimore-area cyclists have been focused since Saturday on the case, noting that Cook left the scene after the 2:30 p.m. crash, despite having a heavily broken windshield. Sutton’s letter said Cook returned to the scene “after about 20 minutes to take responsibility for her actions.” However, cyclists on several Baltimore news and biking sites said that her car was chased by other cyclists and that she returned only because of that.

In the 2010 drunk driving incident, police records show, Cook confessed to the police that she had been smoking marijuana too. The Washington Post reports that the incident has sparked debate among Episcopalians about whether or not Cook ought to have been ordained a bishop with that severe drunk driving incident in her past, especially in her recent past. How on earth did church leaders involved in tapping her for the episcopate do so in spite of what they knew?

Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith, obviously, but to forgive someone doesn’t require you to be blind to their tendencies toward serious sin. Didn’t the Episcopalians learn a thing from the Catholic scandal? Yes, forgive the repentant, but Cook very clearly had a terrible drinking problem in 2010. Maybe she got treatment for it; we don’t know yet. Still, why wasn’t alcoholism and drug use considered a disqualifying factor for the episcopate, considering the irreproachable character bishops are supposed to have?

And why didn’t the insiders who knew this about the Rev. Cook disclose it to those responsible for voting on her candidacy for the episcopacy?

Thoughts, readers? One of the commenters quoted by the WaPo alleges that the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s search committee was so eager to have a woman bishop that they threw aside all caution to push Cook.

UPDATE: Let’s not use this as another opportunity to grind axes against TEC. The question I put to the room has to do with forgiveness, responsibility, and fitness for church leadership. It could happen to most any church.



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