By John Marsh, Editor & Publisher
Former Bishop Heather Cook last month pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other charges a day before her trial was to begin in the hit-and-run death of 41-year-old cyclist Thomas Palermo.
As part of the plea, Cook was sentenced to 20 years in jail and will be required to serve 10 years, with 10 years suspended and five years’ probation.
Cook, 58, hit and killed Palermo, 41, when she droveher SUV into a bicycle lane in Baltimore late last year. When she hit Palermo from behind, her blood alcohol was nearly three times Maryland’s legal limit, at 0.22 percent. She was also texting at the time, and she fled the scene, only to return later at the urging of friends.
She pleaded guilty to: automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and driving while under the influence and texting while driving.
You may recall that RBR wrote about this galling incident earlier this year. It was particularly egregious because Cook had a known history of alcoholism and drug issues, including a prior DUI arrest, yet she was elevated by the Episcopal church to the rank of bishop. In addition, she was not immediately charged in the case.
Our Original Story
An Episcopal bishop in Baltimore on December 27 hit and killed Thomas Palermo, a well-known 41-year-old cyclist, and a father of two young children, while he was riding in what the New York Times described as a “wide bike lane” on a popular cycling road.
The bishop, Heather Elizabeth Cook, 58, was reported to be drunk, and texting, at the time of the accident. She fled the scene, returning 30 minutes later, with a church official in tow. A breath test showed her blood alcohol level to be .22 (the legal limit in Maryland is .08). Yet, she was released after the breathalyzer test at the police station and not charged for another week.
Cook eventually was charged with manslaughter, leaving the scene, driving under the influence of alcohol and texting while driving. She faces up to 20 years in prison.
If that single incident weren’t horrific enough, what came out in the aftermath is what truly sets this tragedy apart. This paragraph from a Wall Street Journal story on the case summarizes it perfectly:
“The accident has drawn national interest because Cook is the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and its first female bishop, and because she was charged in a dramatic drunken driving case in 2010 at her previous assignment, in the Diocese of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, before becoming bishop. In that case, an officer found Cook in the middle of the night driving on three tires, with vomit on her shirt and too intoxicated to complete a sobriety test, according to the police report.”
In that earlier case, Cook registered a 0.27 blood-alcohol level. She received probation and was ordered to pay a $300 fine. Yet, even with that arrest on her record, church officials still promoted her to bishop after the incident.
Palermo’s family released a statement that read: “We are deeply saddened to learn of the events leading up to the senseless hit-and-run accident that claimed Tom’s life, and support the prosecutor’s efforts to hold Bishop Heather Cook accountable for her actions to the fullest extent of the law.”
This tragic case raised a host of issues about the way church organizations handle forgiveness and addiction, about the way police handle cases such as this one (critics claimed the bishop received deferential treatment), and cycling advocates, too, complained that such a clear-cut case should have been prosecuted quicker, and more forcefully. There’s also the question of how her initial drunken driving case was adjudicated.
Read the Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles for more information.
An article about Cook’s sentencing in Christiantoday.com ends with what may be the best possible postscript from the Episcopal church (though it is from a single Episcopal pastor, it still fully recognizes the failures of the church in the case).
“Following a diocesan meeting Rev Anjel Scarborough wrote in an open letter to her congregation at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick in January.
“She said although the committee that appointed Cook appear to have followed the Church’s national guidelines, ‘our guidelines are woefully inadequate and naïve in addressing the complex problems of substance abuse and addiction.’
“Scarborough lists a summary of the many failures she perceives in this tragic event.
“‘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.’”
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