While the entire Episcopal Church community remains profoundly shocked over Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook’s arrest last week for manslaughter after she struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo, Mid-Shore Anglicans are surely feeling even more acute agony since Rev. Cook had served with the Diocese of Easton before her historic appointment as Maryland’s first woman Episcopal bishop in May of 2014.
News reports indicate that the 58-year-old Cook was driving intoxicated in the Roland Park section of Baltimore on December 27 when her car hit Mr. Palerno’s bicycle from the rear. She was texting at the time of the accident. The impact caused the cyclist to be thrown directly into the windshield of Cook’s automobile before landing curbside on Roland Avenue. As confirmed by police records, Rev. Cook left the mortally wounded victim and drove instead to her home. She returned to the scene twenty minutes later.
Sadly for all, this was not the first time Rev. Cook was involved with drunk driving. In 2010, she had been arrested for driving under the influence on the Eastern Shore, when Maryland State Police found her driving with an empty bottle of liquor, several wine bottles, and two bags of marijuana in her car.
The consequences of that particular violation were remarkably modest. Rev. Cook was ordered by the court to pay a fine of $300 and received probation before judgment on the DUI charge, therefore avoiding the offense recorded in her driving record. The same kind of discretion was shown more recently by the church leadership electing not to reveal her past to the clerics and lay delegates who elected her to the post of bishop.
The motivation for both the legal system and the Episcopal Church in this case was to allow Rev. Cook the proverbial second chance. These were, in many ways, acts of institutional forgiveness which aligned closely to the values of justice and religious creeds. But should not the courts and church match these acts of compassion with common sense, non-punitive support to help Ms. Cook, and others like her, with this lifelong affliction?
Is it not reasonable in this era of enlightenment about the biological causation of this devastating disease to expect government and religion to proactively assist someone like Heather Cook in her recovery by keeping her history open and accessible? If Rev. Cook had a history of epileptic seizures, heart issues, or any other condition that could unexpectedly impact one’s ability to drive a car or cognitively function, would those same institutions not take protective measures to ensure her health and the public’s safety.
This horrific story is also how the stigma of addiction can lead to deadly consequences. The church, wanting to protect Rev. Cook’s reputation and career advancement, decided that any association with this illness was so damaging — even within an institution known for acknowledging substance addiction as a disease — silence was the only morally right course to take.
Perhaps it takes the needless death of a father of two young children to allow for a rare teachable moment to take place in Maryland. Both institutions must use this tragedy to look carefully at what forgiveness means for victims of this illness and their communities.