Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, has an awesome group of folks who call themselves the Palmer Holy Spokes. They love to ride together on their bicycles for fun and fellowship and to raise funds for worthy causes, such as helping those with multiple sclerosis and educating people about breast cancer.
Their congregation, where I now serve as the Rector (i.e., senior pastor), also has an impressive legacy of ministries with recovering alcoholics. Part of that continues today through a high school, which is located on Palmer’s campus and, as described on its website, is “dedicated to supporting teens in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse or dependency.” This past summer, I wrote about that high school and also about an amazing man in my previous church who helped recovering alcoholics, like himself, both find and keep a job in “Grace in Addiction: Archway Academy.”
I’ve been thinking about all of that while reflecting on the horrifying, tragic events that unfolded in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland on December 27, 2014. The pastoral letter that appears below was written this week by an Episcopal priest to her congregation in Brunswick, Maryland. It provides a summary of what happened and refers to an educational fund for two young children who needlessly lost their father two days after Christmas Day. My wife and I have two boys about the same ages as those children, and we made a contribution to that fund last week. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Keep them in your prayers. Lord, have mercy.
Dear beloved in Christ,
Until now, I have refrained from addressing the distressing news surrounding the automobile collision involving our Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook on December 27, 2014 which resulted in the death of Baltimore cyclist Thomas Palermo. In the wake of this collision, details have emerged over Heather Cook having a prior DUI in 2010 in Caroline County. In addition to the police investigation, the national church has launched its own investigation under Title IV of the Constitution and Canons which may lead to Heather being put on trial in Ecclesiastical Court with the possibility of her being deposed. This morning at 11AM, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that Heather Cook has been charged with manslaughter, driving under the influence and texting while driving and a warrant has been issued for her immediate arrest.
There has been much speculation and outrage expressed in the media – both in newspapers and on social media. Pastorally, I felt that refraining from speaking until the facts of the investigations became available rather than adding to speculation was an appropriate Christian response. Now that charges have been filed and having attended a clergy meeting with Bishop Sutton and diocesan staff this past Tuesday, I am in a better position to now speak to our Grace family as your rector.
First, as an avid cyclist myself, I am deeply grieved by the death of Tom Palermo – a man who left a wife and two children behind as well as many friends in the cycling community in Baltimore. We offered prayers last Sunday for the repose of his soul and will continue to pray for his widow and children. A consensus which emerged in our meeting last Tuesday with Bishop Sutton was to designate an offering on Sunday, February 1st to be directed to the education fund already established for Tom Palermo’s children Sadie and Sam. Please consider making a donation to Grace Church on this Sunday and mark your donation to be directed to the Palermo fund. While nothing can bring Tom’s back, this act to help his children is what we can do to help them as they go forward.
Second, I want to address many of the questions which have arisen regarding this tragedy: How could someone with a history of driving under the influence be elected bishop? Did anyone know about this prior arrest? Did the search committee or standing committee fail to exercise due diligence in vetting the candidates for bishop? Bishop Sutton and the diocesan staff addressed questions about the search process on Tuesday and I want to share that with you.
- Heather Cook self-disclosed her DUI to the chair of the search committee and Bishop Sutton. What level of detail she disclosed about her arrest was not discussed with us at the meeting. She received probation before judgment and satisfied all of the requirements of the court for her probation. In so doing, her record was eligible to be expunged. This was her first arrest for driving under the influence.
- As per the national church’s guidelines, all of the bishop candidates were referred to a psychiatrist for evaluation. Heather was deemed fit to continue in the process. Exact details of what she discussed with the psychiatrist are protected under HIPAA laws.
- The search committee and standing committee were told “a candidate has a DUI in their past” and both committees were asked if this would disqualify the candidate. No other details of Heather’s arrest were disclosed, such as how long ago it happened (4 years ago), what her blood alcohol content was at the time of arrest (the breathalyzer registered .27 – indicating severe intoxication), and the presence of drug paraphernalia and marijuana in the car (a charge which was dropped). This was in keeping with the national guidelines on handling sensitive information in a search process.
- The information about Heather’s prior DUI was not disclosed to the electing convention per the national guidelines.
The conclusion I have reached is that our search committee and standing committee followed the guidelines from the national church but that our guidelines are woefully inadequate and naïve in addressing the complex problems of substance abuse and addiction. Questions regarding how one is managing and treating a chronic condition like addiction, or any other chronic condition which could impact a clergy’s ability to serve as a church leader, are questions which need to be addressed as part of the search process. I strongly believe our national guidelines need revision to address this deficiency but recognize that within the limits of what they could do our search and standing committees did their job to the best of their ability.
Some have expressed their feeling that the details of Heather’s DUI should have been made public to those charged with electing her. Heather was encouraged to self-disclose this during the walkabout meetings. She chose not to disclose. In hindsight, her lack of transparency over disclosing this raises serious questions about whether or not she was addressing her alcoholism. Indiscriminately publicizing the details of a DUI beyond the search and standing committees would have been akin to labeling someone with a scarlet letter: it is shaming. Shaming is never redemptive or Christian and serves to discourage those suffering from alcoholism and addiction from seeking needed treatment. Revising the process for more transparency in disclosing to search committees and standing committees would likely have resulted in Heather’s candidacy for bishop ending before her name was put forward for election.
I have been asked as to whether or not Heather was subjected to a criminal background check as all candidates for ordination are in the Episcopal Church. Candidates for deacon and priest are subjected to a thorough criminal background check. The background check I went through was more rigorous than the one I went through for a top secret clearance with the DOD. The responsibility for running a background check for bishop’s candidates is that of the Presiding Bishop’s office at the national church, not the local diocese.
Some have made the blanket statement that no alcoholic should ever be ordained. I disagree strongly with that statement. We have many fine clergy in the Episcopal Church who are alcoholics in recovery. They have many years of sobriety to their credit and work solid programs to maintain their sobriety. They seek ways to be held accountable in sobriety and are transparent in disclosing their alcoholism when it is appropriate and when it can be of service to another alcoholic or to help educate others about the disease. Our church would be much poorer without their ministry. I do believe we need to better address the problems of clergy or candidates for ordination whose alcoholism is active and who are acting out in ways which damage themselves and others. I pray we can begin to address this in the wake of Tom’s tragic death.
In the end, this was an epic failure. It was the failure of a process to stop a candidate for bishop from being put forward when clearly her alcoholism was not in remission. It was a failure of Heather’s to choose not to treat her alcoholism and conceal her past. This resulted in the death of a husband and father – something which Heather will have to live with for the rest of her life and for which she may be incarcerated. This was our failure of Heather too. As the Church, we set her up to fail by confusing forgiveness with accountability. We did not hold her accountable to a program of sobriety and we failed to ask the tough love questions which needed to be asked. In so doing, we offered cheap grace – and that is enabling.
This tragic and painful situation has brought grief, a sense of betrayal, anger, and embarrassment to all of us in the Diocese of Maryland. Yet St. Paul reminds us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The many failures which resulted in Thomas Palermo’s death should not have happened, but they did. I ask your continued prayers for the Palermo family as they grieve. I ask you to pray for those who will be charged with bringing Heather Cook to trial that justice may be done for Tom’s family and the cycling community. I ask your prayers for Bishop Sutton and the staff at the diocesan offices as they move through this painful situation and seek healing. And I ask your prayers for Heather Cook that she may face the harsh reality of her alcoholism and, in accepting the consequences of her actions, be drawn to seek treatment to begin living a sober life. As always, I remain available to discuss these difficult issues with you in the coming days and weeks ahead.
The Rev. Anjel Scarborough