Dual actions end Heather Cook’s ordained ministry, employment

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted May 1, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori announced May 1 that she and Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook have reached an agreement that deprives her of her status as an ordained person in The Episcopal Church; moreover, that announcement came on the same day that Cook resigned her diocesan post.

Cook is scheduled to go on trial in June for allegedly causing the Dec. 27 car-bicycle accident in Baltimore that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo. The simultaneous May 1 announcements do not involve the legal proceedings against Cook, but they do end all ecclesiastical disciplinary matters pending against her.

Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton had placed Cook on administrative leave shortly after the accident. Jefferts Schori restricted her ministry on Feb. 10

The statement from the Office of the Presiding Bishop is here and below.

“Pursuant to Title IV of the Canons of The Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Cook have reached an Accord. Under the terms of the Accord, Bishop Cook will receive a Sentence of Deposition, pursuant to which she shall be ‘deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority of God’s word and sacraments conferred at ordination.’

“As such, Cook will no longer function as an ordained person in The Episcopal Church.

“The Accord resolves all ecclesiastical disciplinary matters involving Cook.

“This Accord is separate from any resolution of employment matters involving Cook and the Diocese of Maryland as well as from criminal matters pending in the secular courts.”

The statement from the Diocese of Maryland is here and below.

“The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton and the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland today announced the acceptance of the resignation of Heather E. Cook as bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. This means that Cook is no longer employed by the diocese. The acceptance of Cook’s resignation is independent of any Title IV disciplinary action taken by the Episcopal Church.”

In late January, the Maryland Standing Committee and Sutton asked Cook to resign as an employee of the diocese.

A Baltimore grand jury indicted Cook Feb. 4 on 13 counts for allegedly causing the Dec. 27 car-bicycle accident.

Five of the charges listed in the indictment by a Baltimore City grand jury come in addition to those Cook has faced since being charged Jan. 9 with four criminal offenses and four traffic violations.

The grand jury had added charges of driving while under the influence of alcohol per se (a “per se” DUI charge involves drivers whose blood alcohol limit is above the .08% legal limit and can be charged with drunk driving even if their ability to drive does not appear to be impaired), driving under the impairment of alcohol, texting while driving, reckless driving and negligent driving.

The original Jan. 9 criminal charges included manslaughter by vehicle, criminal negligent manslaughter by vehicle, homicide by driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol per se and homicide by driving a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol.

The traffic charges filed on Jan. 9 included failing to remain at an accident resulting in death, failing to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury, using a text messaging device while driving causing an accident with death or serious injury, and driving under the influence of alcohol. The grand jury added to the two failure-to-stop offenses a charge of failure to stop the vehicle as close as possible to the scene of an accident.

The failing to remain at an accident resulting in serious bodily injury and the failing to remain at an accident resulting in death are both felony charges.

Cook appeared in court on the charges for the first time April 2 during an arraignment in Baltimore Circuit Court, according to court records. Because she accepted a trial date (June 4) “there’s an inferential plea of not guilty to all the charges,” David Irwin, one of Cook’s attorneys, told reporters outside the courthouse after the arraignment.

Irwin told Episcopal News Service on May 1 that there was been no resolution to the legal charges against Cook. “We hope to make progress in resolving the case, but we’re still involved in the discovery process and in the evaluation process,” he said, referring to the pre-trial process

in which both sides exchange information about the witnesses and evidence they’ll present at trial.

Cook faces a combined maximum penalty of at least 39 years in prison and a $39,000 fine, depending on whether her 2010 arrest and subsequent “probation before judgment” sentence is considered a first offense for any sentence she might receive if she were convicted of the charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or driving while under the influence of alcohol per se.

Cook, who is free on $2.5 million bail, “is still in treatment,” according to Irwin. She has been living in a drug and alcohol treatment facility since shortly after the accident.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (14)

  1. Doug Desper says:

    Now, about those bishops who KNEW about Heather Cook’s repeated addiction and court problems and yet did not reveal them before her election and consecration …..

    1. Grace Cangialosi says:

      What about them? Oh…were they supposed to DO something about that?

    2. Stephen Clark says:

      pretty unreasonable to expect Bishops to actually do something!

  2. John Andrews says:

    Pray for all those concerned, especially the lost of a husband and father

  3. Ann Tucker says:

    The individuals, clergy and lay, who ignored the previous addiction difficulties of this individual,
    in reality were unkind to her and helped set this tragedy in motion. Addiction does not need to be kept secret, but publicly realized as an ongoing problem for an individual. Their friends, family and colleagues have to be open and supportive about this serious health problem. This transparency offers the individual real support, Addictions are difficult to control and impossible to control without this.

  4. Bonita Bryant says:

    I hope that someone or many Episcopalians also pray for Heather Cook as she deals with a life-changing event for herself as well as the death she apparently caused. She surely needs our help!

  5. Julian Malakar says:

    I hope and pray that ex-Bishop Heather Cook be transformed from inside and be used by God in glory of His name whatever comes to her fate. May almighty God bless the bereaved family and strengthen them to move forward to glory of His name!

  6. Anne Bay says:

    Heather Cook is as of now a lay person. She has been deposed, which technically means she has been stripped of her ordination, and also she has officially resigned as suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Maryland. This is a true tragedy. The church has a long way to go with being educated as to what the Disease of Alcoholism is and the signs of being an Alcoholic or an Addict or both. I am hoping that the National Church begins a program for all the dioceses in how to identify the signs of addiction, and if you know them, it can be done. The Betty Ford Clinic has joined with Hazelden and is one of the foremost, if not the most foremost treatment facility-they would be a professional resource for information for the families and friends of persons with the Disease of Addiction. The University of Indiana released the results of their study on the brain of an addicted person, and it’s no surprise, but the addicted person’s brain has eleven differences that a non-alcoholic/addicted person doesn’t have, so with all the studies at many major universities, it’s more clear than ever that this is a physiological disease, and is highly genetic, but doesn’t have to be. It runs in families, and Heather Cook’s dad, an Episcopal Priest, was an alcoholic and probably there are several other family members who have the disease. The tragedy also was that from people’s observations was that she had a history of showing up drunk at various functions, including her pre-consecration dinner and no one took action. It doesn’t have to happen again. All this won’t bring the bicyclist back that she killed, and his family will be changed forever, and that is the result of how insidious and deadly the progressive disease of alcoholism is and the failure of the people who observed Heather’s drunken history, but failed to speak up. Apparently the church needs to spread the word about the importance of confronting the person’s disease and learning about Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-anon and Alateen. Many experts in the field I’m sure wold be more than happy to conduct seminars and speak to church members. There is hope for not only the person has the disease of alcoholism/addiction, but also for their family and friends-everyone is affected and everyone, including the children in the family need information, treatment, and attend meetings of A.A., Al-anon and Alateen. Many A.A. meetings are “open” meaning you do not need to be an alcoholic to go, and the same with Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Al-anon is open to anyone who would like to get information, insight, and help for themselves regarding the alcoholic in their lives. Alateen covers ages 6 years old through 20 years of age for young people who are affected by someone’s alcoholism. Nar-Anon is a support group for families and friends of someone with drug addiction. The literature in all these programs is state of the art and the best place to begin studying how addiction works. So far no one has said anything about the family and others close to Heather participating in a program of recovery-they need it too. The disease of addiction is a family disease and everyone needs help. Obviously the clergy of the diocese need special up to date teaching on what Alcoholism is and attend meetings too. It’s anybody’s guess how Heather’s trial will turn out, but it’s clear she won’t be amongst the clergy any longer. If she gets good counseling, she would do well to take her disease seriously-this is a matter of life and death, so hopefully she will eventually be able to accept the fact that she is an Alcoholic.

  7. Anne Bay says:

    In the ENS email it stated that the criteria, etc. for selecting bishops will be examined. In the wheels of change, nothing happens quickly, so this is only a start. Clearly, the screening for all clergy needs to be brought up and discussed. The House of Bishops will be discussing the Diocese of Maryland fiasco I am sure. Like I said in my article though, education on what they don’t know needs to be covered. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. It is still a mess, but change can happen.

  8. Rob Godwin says:

    Can a person be ‘deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority of God’s word and sacraments conferred at ordination,’ by a human authority?
    To me this sounds like the Jewish authorities telling the disciples to stop preaching about Jesus. Surely, in both cases the gift is from the Holy Spirit, isn’t it?
    Also, if the sacramental rite of ordination can be rescinded, is the rite of baptism in any danger. This looks a bit like the thin end of the wedge. God is the head of the church, not any Bishop, presiding or otherwise.

    1. Frank Bergen says:

      I’ve never had occasion to look closely at Rob Godwin’s question in an Episcopalian framework, but my (formerly) Roman understanding is that yes, orders are God-given and cannot be taken away by the church. What the church can do is deny the priest or bishop the right to exercise the orders. I think the writer who stated that Heather Cook is now a lay person is technically incorrect. She has been deposed and is to act as a lay person but orders, like baptism, cannot be washed away. “Once a priest always a priest” is a statement I’ve always accepted as true and I believe it is applicable to Heather Cook’s situation.

  9. Jim Hampton says:

    Did TEC or Diocese of Maryland reach a settlement in exchange for Cook’s resignation? Money? Health Insurance? Retirement vesting? Seems like she held out for a long time before resigning.

    How is her ex-priest boyfriend and enabler handling this?

  10. Gloria stickel says:

    A true tragedy for all of us. No need to judge. We’ve all been there at one time or the other. Driving while under the influence or texting. But we were lucky and didn’t get caught and didn’t cause a terrible tragedy. Let us learn from this accident. I pray for Cook and the family she broke that they will somehow survive these consequences by the grace of God.

  11. Gustavo A. Nystrom says:

    It seems to me that if one of our leaders has a bad habit which is seriously harming innocent folks, colleagues who know about the problem are bound to report the problem for the sake of the innocent, for the justification of allowing us to be called leaders, and for whatever credibility our institution still has. In my RC denomination we have learned a lot about these issues this last decade.

Comments are closed.