Former bishop suffragan convicted of automobile manslaughter applies for work-release program

By ENS staff
Posted Jul 30, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] Heather Cook, formerly Episcopal Diocese of Maryland bishop suffragan, has asked the Maryland prison system to release her for a daytime work program.

Her request is being reviewed, and if approved, Cook could begin the unspecified work within a few weeks, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Cook is serving a seven-year prison sentence for fatally striking a bicyclist on Dec. 27, 2014, while texting and driving drunk, and then leaving the scene.

The Maryland Parole Commission denied her May 2017 request for parole after a hearing at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, where Cook, 61, has been serving her sentence since October 2015. In May of this year, she was denied her request to serve the rest of her sentence on home detention.

Cook pleaded guilty in September 2015 to automobile manslaughter and three other criminal charges for causing the car-bicycle accident in suburban Baltimore that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who also built custom bike frames. He was married and the father of two young children.

The charges included driving while having nearly three times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood system, texting while driving and then leaving the scene of the accident. Cook originally faced 13 charges relating to the fatal accident. She had been previously arrested in 2010 on an impaired-driving charge.

In the aftermath of Cook’s crime, the Episcopal Church began to take a deeper look at the way it handles impairment of various kinds at every level and stage. As a result, the recent 79th General Convention passed three resolutions calling for mandatory training on alcohol, substance misuse and other forms of addiction for those in the ordination process and for all priests and deacons; a team established by the presiding bishop to respond to impairment issues, give confidential advice and help monitor a person’s recovery; and an evaluation by the Executive Council and the House of Bishops of their policies and practices surrounding alcohol and substance during their gatherings.

Resolution A148, also passed by convention, which among other things says that every bishop nominee should be evaluated for substance, chemical and alcohol use and abuse. For a bishop-elect, those findings must be included in the information sent to bishops and diocesan standing committees that are required to consent to that person’s election.

Diocese of Maryland Assistant Bishop Chilton R. Knudsen, known as an expert in addiction and recovery with clergy and congregations, chaired the bishops’ legislative committee on churchwide leadership.

Alisa Rock, a sister of Palermo’s wife, emailed The Sun to say his family opposes Cook’s latest application.

Under Maryland law, Cook was eligible for parole after serving a quarter of her sentence. She reached that date in July 2017. The Sun reported that Cook has been earning 10 days off her sentence each month by working in the prison sew shop for Maryland Correctional Enterprises, an arm of the department that hires people while they are incarcerated. She would continue to earn those days on a work-release program.

Cook’s current release date is in late August of next year, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.


Comments (51)

  1. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    What a sad story. It points to the need for reform of the whole process for electing bishops. We also need to look into the cause of increased alcoholism among the clergy. As for texting while driving, that is now causing thousands of lives lost every year. In my opinion, a clergy person caught texting while driving should be removed from the ministry at once. That is inexcusable behavior.

    1. Karen Emery says:

      Yes, I agree with needed education on distracted driving: drug use, alcohol use, texting and driving while very tired. Also friends of clergy can help their friends and others by reporting the need for long term treatment and on- going counseling and follow up. Save livesm

  2. Sylvia Temmer says:

    This was a horrific tragedy…I cannot see what good is done by leaving this woman in jail. IF she is released, she can be denied a driver’s license…she can serve the community in so many charitable situations. She can also be an example to others who might be tempted to feel they can stretch the limits of the law…Her life is now already an example of disaster. I feel great compassion for her.

    1. Bill Louis says:

      Why should the the treatment of a priest committing a crime be any different from a lay person? In fact, a priest should be held to a higher standard. I can’t believe there are so many willing to “forgive and forget” what she did to this family. To allow her to continue on in any capacity in the church would be a travesty. Would you say the same thing for a priest guilty of pedophillia?

  3. Lloyd Newell says:

    Released in August 2019, after 4 years and 9 months, for one with priors of DUI, leaving scene and resulting in death, work release should Not be given. Serving time of only 4 years and 9 months seems too short of time.

    1. David Sayers says:

      Doing work as an “in house chaplin” while serving out the rest of her full sentence is a great idea!

    2. Lloyd Newell says:

      The family the dead father, wife wants her to stay prison. She is a repeat offender of alcohol. I’m thinking she has already been through a facility treating for alcoholics before killing with a car.. If so it did’t take.

    3. Pamela Forbes says:

      Unless my memory is playing me false, Ms Cook resigned her orders, episcopal, priestly and diaconal. She was not deposed, either by consent or after ecclesiastical trial. One way or another, at least as to holy orders, she got it. Once she gets out of prison, whenever that may be, perhaps the Holy Spirit will point her toward a vocation in which her painful experience may yield positive fruit.

      These events were wrenching for all of us, lay and ordained, in the Diocese of Maryland. Many contributed to a fund for the Palermo family, and many have upheld all the people involved in prayer in the intervening years. I agree that the process for vetting candidates for episcopal election needs detailed examination and probable revision.

      Would that the Holy Spirit would inspire all of us to prayer and self-examination as we contemplate the long term consequences of these events.

      1. Canon John Crean says:

        Let’s remember some basics about sacramental theology:
        “Once a deacon/priest/bishop always a deacon/priest/bishop.”
        Heather resigned her faculties to exercise ordained ministry. But she cannot remove the indelible character of the Sacrament of Order. It was a “forced resignation,” I would imagine, with all kinds of pressure from “higher ups” who were so careless and dismissive of her disease until it finally did its worst.
        I would like to see her restored to some ministry, perhaps beginning with a life of prayer and penance. But she remains ontologically a deacon, priest and bishop. Make no mistake about that.

        1. Pamela Forbes says:

          Of course the sacrament of ordinaltion effectuates an ontological change,* sub specie aeternitatem, in the person upon whom it is conferred. I’m not sure that’s really the issue here, however. Speaking as a former deputy chancellor of the relevant diocese, (and retired well before this series of events began,) the Church needs to be diligent and prayerful about those it clothes with apparent authority.

          *At least according to many of us!

          1. Canon John Crean says:

            Amen to what Pamela said!

        2. Lloyd Newell says:

          By all means find work and pay restitution to one single mother of two.

    4. Debra Aring says:

      The former bishop was denied parole the first time she applied was because she showed no remorse and took no responsibility for her actions that caused a man to loose his life. I don’t think she would be suitable for prison chaplaincy and the church did the correct thing by removing her orders.

      As for reforming how we elect bishops, I heartily agree. There were countless points at which this ordination could have been stopped, but people chose to turn a blind eye. That is another tragedy in this situation that is often overlooked.

      1. Peter Currer says:

        As for reforming how we elect bishops, I heartily agree that much change is needed. There were countless points at which this ordination could have been stopped, but people chose to turn a blind eye. The fact that all of the background information on Cook was withheld from those of us who voted on her ordination at convention is unconscionable. It has made us all victims. That is another tragedy in this situation that is often overlooked.

  4. Very Rev Canon John Crean says:

    This woman should be shown some mercy. She has been involuntarily laicized by TEC, which itself is guilty of ha Bing done due diligence in her vetting process. There had been a clear record of the prior untreated disease of alcoholism.
    Let’s try to make sure we now help her at least put back the shards of her shattered life into some new resurrection format. Lord, have mercy. TEC, have mercy!

    1. Doug Desper says:

      John, I couldn’t care less that Heather Cook was laicized involuntarily. Ms. Cook was a reckless individual whose selfish and thoughtless actions killed a husband and father. She didn’t do something innocuous and inadvertent like bounce a bank account. She ran the streets drunk, texting on her cellphone, and on another occasion was found with drugs in her car and she eventually killed a man and drove off. The bishop’s miter is not a crown. She was ordained, not enthroned, and her actions betrayed the role of shepherd. By any New Testament standard she is no longer anything close to a shepherd, especially since she couldn’t even voice true remorse.

  5. Doug Desper says:

    The big question that is still “out there” still deserves coverage and a response; maybe I missed it in ENS. Apparently Bishops Schori and Sutton suspected that Cook was impaired (drunk) at a dinner just before her consecration and yet they went ahead with it anyway. If — and it isn’t clear because no exposure has been given to it — if this is true then why hasn’t there been a House of Bishops response? Between Bishop Bruno, Bishop Charles Bennison and then this horror most people could be convinced that the episcopacy is viewed as a dictatorship by some who are elected to it — and not a very benevolent one at that. “Woe to the shepherds who scatter My flock…”

  6. Roger D White says:

    This woman killed an innocent man. I cannot even bear to resurface the memory of this horrific killing.

    Maryland, please grant her NO favors.

    1. Canon John Crean says:

      Is this Bishop White, formerly the Ordinary of Milwaukee???

      1. David Johnson says:

        I don’t think so. Bishop Roger White died in 2012.

    2. Robbie Johnson says:

      She should be in the slammer the rest of her days.

  7. Charles Pierce says:

    I am torn between Ms. Cook and the family of the man she killed while driving Drunk. We are all sinners, what punishment has or will God put on Ms. Cook. What temporal punishment is enough to fit the crime as her actions have destroyed a family that can not be reconstructed. How do you split the baby in this case?

  8. The Rev. Coryl Lassen says:

    Alcoholism is indeed a disease requiring treatment. Part of that treatment is spiritual, often in the form of living by and continuing to practice the 12 Steps. I would want to know not only if she was genuinely remorseful, but if she is (and will be) continuing to receive treatment. Is she attending AA in prison? Is she working the Steps?

    I believe one of the issues in the Discernment process was that she said she was an alcoholic, but both she and those interviewing her treated her disease as something she had “taken care of”. That’s not how it works. She will not stop being an addict. What mattered then and matters now is whether she continues, day in and day out, to do the spiritual, emotional and practical work of living as a sober alcoholic.

    She is being punished for her crimes. The adequacy of that punishment can be debated, of course. But I don’t believe she can be safely released unless she is seeking and participating in treatment for the disease that underlies the crimes.

    1. Richard Sanger says:

      As a recovering alcoholic with long-term sobriety (43 years) I say “amen” to that.

    2. “It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities, ..”.p 85

      For 13,803 days I have lived in remission from the disease of alcoholism. I also assist others as a nationally certified, licensed, and qualified substance abuse professional, in addition to being a priest and a hospice chaplain. My personal history includes burying a child from a drug overdose and a grandson murdered by a drug-impaired childhood friend. To those who focus on retribution with regard to Ms Cook, I can truthfully say that I have forgiven the killer of my 24 year old grandson who was the shining star of my life. My daughter, his mother, has done the same thing. It hurts my heart to read where some still focus on what was done by Ms Cook, continuing to drink the poison of un-forgiveness expecting someone else to get sick. To those I say, you could be missing the peace which passes all understanding, and my heart hurts for you.

      1. Canon John Crean says:

        Rogers Thompson has it right. And he has suffered and understands the disease of addiction and the healing of forgiveness. God bless you, Rogers!

        1. Charles Pierce says:

          I have live with the disease of alcoholism all of my life. That does not excuse the actions Ms. Cook. Finish Ceasar’s punishment and then we can talk.

          1. Mr. Pierce, it is abundantly clear to me that you have lived with the disease of alcoholism all your life. What is not clear is the degree of healing you have experienced to recover from the affects of living with this pervasive, deeply soul damaging condition. I try to be a messenger of healing and hope to all who still suffer from this devastating disease. If you know of anyone who is sick and tired of being sick and tired, I and millions of others in recovery stand ready to share our experience, strength and hope.

        2. Thank you Canon Crean. It is a relief to me that you “get it.” Your understanding shine like a beacon in the dark.

  9. mike geibel says:

    Bishop Cook was driving, texting and struck and killed 41-year old Thomas Palermo from behind when she veered into a clearly marked bicycle lane. The Bishop promptly fled the scene with the bicyclist’s helmet embedded in her shattered windshield. She returned home but made no calls to 911. She returned to the scene and said nothing to police. She left again to take her dog home before turning herself in. Judge Doory stated: “Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision.” A breathalyzer test taken 30 minutes after the hit and run showed a blood alcohol level at 0.22 percent, three times the legal limit.

    Thomas Palermo was the father of two children. Rachel Palermo put her children to bed that night without telling them their father was dead. “The pain on my daughter’s face is etched in my mind.” Her son hit her and ran away. Rachel is now dealing with life as a single mother. She had no full-time job at the time.

    Bishop Cook could have received 39 years in prison for the drunken fatal hit and run accident but was given a plea deal. She was sentenced to 20 years behind bars, but 13 years of that sentence was suspended, leaving seven years to be served. In her prior drunk-driving charge, Police found marijuana and empty liquor bottles in her car. As soon as the interlock device was taken off her car, she went back to drinking.

    Her request for early parole was denied, with the note: “During the hearing she did not accept responsibility. She lacked remorse. She called it a ‘brutal irony’, and she did not apologize to the victim (Rachel) present. She spoke about herself, Her family, Her issues, Her needs, Her disease ….” She will probably be given early release next year. Thomas is dead and his family scarred forever.

  10. Eric Bonetti says:

    One thing I found disconcerting was that when Executive Council met in Maryland, very close to where she was incarcerated, no one allegedly visited her. Whatever happened to ministering to those in prison?

    Note that I am not in any way minimizing her actions. Indeed, having lost six members of my family to a drunk driver, I am acutely aware of the suffering that alcohol can cause. But we are still talking about another human being, made in the image of God.

  11. Addictive disease such as alcoholism is typically diagnosed accurately only by the individual with it and usually that individual is the last one to identify it. This is a disease in which Cat-Scans, X-Rays, MRI’s, blood work, etc. will not definitively diagnose. Since alcoholism is not a psychiatric disorder, psychiatric evaluations will not identify it. Alcoholism is an illness diagnosed conclusively only by the person who suffers from it. Effective treatment for the illness is a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty, guided and supported by a spiritual program of attraction rather than promotion. If Heather Cook has demonstrated that she has “done the deal” with the help of such a program, her ministry for good would be exponentially more powerful than any previous harm.

    1. Charles Pierce says:

      I am the adult child of an Alcoholic and a co dependent mother. Alcoholism does not excuse what Ms. Cook did, society needs to punish her with serving the full sentence. I wonder if she is required to make restitution to the family that she destroyed.

      1. No mention was made by me of excusing past behavior. I suggest that everyone affected by alcoholism needs to avail themselves of the same healing opportunities as the alcoholic themselves.

        1. Charles Pierce says:

          And I do not disagree with that. She has had 3+ years in a cloistered environment and a great opportunity to seek help either AA or professional counseling. My question is has he done so. The second question is just as Shylock required his pound of flesh, the state require it pound of flesh, I do not believe that has been met.

  12. mike geibel says:

    “If Heather Cook has demonstrated that she has ‘done the deal’with the help of such a program, her ministry for good would be exponentially more powerful than any previous harm.”

    Really? The harm she did is irreversible. A father is dead. His wife and children are irreparably harmed. “Ministry for good” is not more worthy than a human life, nor can monetary restitution replace the permanent loss of a loving father. This was an avoidable tragedy that cannot be undone, and Bishop Cook is personally responsible. Expressions of compassion for the author of this tragedy will be perceived as a hurtful insult by her victims.

    Under civil laws, driving drunk constitutes “conscious disregard” for the safety of others. She was not unconscious when she killed Thomas Palermo. She was texting on her cell phone.

    Rehabilitation is not the primary purpose of jail time and serving only four years of what was a 20 year sentence is not perceived as “justice” by the family of Thomas Palermo or by many others. Incarceration serves three societal purposes: removal of a person who is a threat to society, punishment by loss of personal freedom, and most importantly, satisfaction of society’s expectation of justice. When prosecutors offer slap-on-the-wrist plea deals or Judges are too lenient in sentencing, the public respect for the criminal justice system is lost along with respect for our laws.

    Let God be the ultimate judge of Bishop Cook, not us. Pray for her soul. Encourage and allow her to try to reconstruct her shattered life. The fact she was a Bishop is an embarrassment for the TEC, but the Church is not responsible for this tragedy–the blame lies solely with +Cook.

    1. YES. REALLY! The best example that Christian folk know about regarding my statement with which you take issue is a fellow who became known as St. Paul. He had killed far more that one person before he had “done the deal” and he didn’t have the support of AA. I would say the good that he accomplished after a life as a killer, was “exponentially more powerful than any previous harm,” wouldn’t you?

      1. mike geibel says:

        B+ Cook is no St. Paul.

        1. If memory serves me correctly, St. Paul was not St. Paul when he was murdering folks, so maybe, just maybe, B+ Cook is now Mother Theresa II. Jus sayn.

          1. mike geibel says:

            Dear Rev. Thomson: Would your support for an early release of B+ Cook so that her “ministry for good would be exponentially more powerful than any previous harm” be as ardent if she was an avowed atheist advocating removing the tax exempt status of church property? Or if she was an ordained minister of the Church of Scientology recruiting new members and advocating that Christ was nothing more than a spiritual leader?

            I’m not saying B+ Cook should not be allowed to achieve redemption, but I have seen nothing “factual” warranting her early release from her 7-year sentence. An advocate for her early release should have something more than just abstract “Christian Privilege” or “Clergy Privilege” or the hope that she might do good things in the future.

        2. Charles Pierce says:

          Paul was Saul and caring out Caesar’s law. After the Road to Damascus he changed his toon. But Ms Cook had not accepted what she did was wrong.

    2. To Mike Geibel’s comment: “the Church is not responsible for this tragedy–the blame lies solely with +Cook,” I respectfully disagree. The Episcopal and Roman Churches have for centuries maintained a systemic pathology of denial when it comes to addictive behaviors such as alcoholism and pedophilia. Those in positions of authority have long enabled this kind of conduct to continue. Outside the church, this systemic pathology is now more evident than ever before, ie Penn State, Ohio State, Olympic gymnastics, entertainment, and on and on and on.

      There is no way possible that Ms. Cook is solely responsible for what happened. All of us are. It is “corporate” responsibility with no blame. As long as we continue to have a need to assign blame, the systemic sickness will continue. The solution is spiritual and if the solution fits what I understand spirituality to be, “about God/about love,” there is no blame, no shame, no judgment, no condemnation, no controlling. If the attitudes we develop and the actions we take are POSITIVE, CREATIVE AND REAL, then our attitudes and actions are about GOD, which means our attitudes and actions and about LOVE. It is that simple to me. SIMPLE NOT EASY.

      1. POSITIVE, CREATIVE AND REAL, then our attitudes and actions are about GOD, which means our attitudes and actions are about LOVE.

      2. mike geibel says:

        “As long as we continue to have a need to assign blame, the systemic sickness will continue…there is no blame, no shame, no judgment, no condemnation, no controlling.”

        So if we blame B+ Cook for killing a father while driving drunk and texting on her phone, we all suffer from a “systemic sickness” and it is us, not her, who are to blame because there is no right and wrong. That does not sound POSITIVE, CREATIVE AND REAL. It sounds like Jabberwocky to me.

        ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
        Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
        All mimsy were the borogoves,
        And the mome raths outgrabe.

  13. Charles Pierce says:

    Sir you have far more compassion than I do. Ms. Cooks action were very callus and calculation. She is drunk, texting when she hits a man on a bicycle. Does she stop, no. She drives on. She later returns. She has effectively destroy a family. Society must first extract its pound of Flesh and then she can deal with the aftermath of her actions.
    I find you last paragraph interesting you sound more like a corporate lawyer than a person of any theological back ground. A Lawyer could argue that she is on duty all of the time, and that she was coming form a TEC function where alcohol was served and that the TEC is at least some responsibility.

    1. mike geibel says:

      Mr. Pierce: I am not sure if your comment was directed at me because we seem to agree that +Cook does not deserve special consideration or “clerical” immunity from our laws. Our society requires that people take responsibility for their actions–blaming others or “alcoholism” is scapegoating. Most states have dramshop statutes that provide the serving of alcohol is not the cause of an accident–driving while impaired is the cause.

      Forgiveness has to come from the family of Thomas Palermo and from God. My compassion is for the family, not for the author of this tragedy.

      My condemnation of +Cook is tempered by my own flaws and realization that my own errors in judgment can have unintended consequences, and I have made many errors myself.

      1. Charles Pierce says:

        I read your comments in a very different light. Please forgive my error. I have trouble dealing with people who do not follow Caesar’s law and try to hide behind God’s law.

  14. Gale Erwin says:

    Substance Abuse and Alcoholism has the possibility of rehabilitation according to many federally funded programs in the United States.This clergy member should be permitted to return to the priesthood in some capacity regardless of her ability to drive.I’m certain she could find reliable transportation in a large city like NYC or hire an Uber driver on her dime.Perhapse,she could be given a teaching job at an Episcopal Seminary.

    1. Lloyd Newell says:

      She is now and forever out of any priestly functions from my prospective. Federal funding programs. She can wait. I remember well how long it took to get Agent Orange, PTSD, Suicides of Vietnam Veterans recognized by the feds, over 20 years! Still waiting for apology how this country stuff the Vietnam Veterans.

  15. Winnie Woo says:

    Substance Abuse and Alcoholism has the possibility of rehabilitation according to many federally funded programs in the United States.This clergy member should be permitted to return to the priesthood in some capacity regardless of her ability to drive.I’m certain she could find reliable transportation in a large city like NYC or hire an Uber driver on her dime.Perhapse,she could be given a teaching job at an Episcopal Seminary.

  16. Gale Erwin says:

    There is an old Jewish proverb that teaches men not to condemn people whom you have no direct responsibility over.Personally,I believe this is a civil matter.Some of us probably know of clergy members whom:earned several speeding tickets,were sighted for DUI’s,had anger management problems,suffer from eating disorders,carries from psychological baggage throughout their ministry posts! a federally funded program that has been known to provide educational opportunities to people who have alcohol/substance abuse issues & people with other disabilities.It is my expressed hope that when the former bishop returns to society,that she finds a community of friends & family that will support her regardless of what may or may not have happened in the past.She does not need a clerical collar to perform the work of our Lord.

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