[Updated on May 28, 2015 to reflect more recent developments.]
It was five months ago today in Baltimore that Heather Cook, the newly installed Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, while drinking and driving (and texting), struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo…and left the scene…twice. Since that time Bishop Heather was charged with vehicular manslaughter, drunk driving, distracted driving, and hit and run. The Bishop of Maryland asked for her resignation. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church convened a Title IV disciplinary investigation. Ultimately, the three reached a settlement in which Cook resigned her episcopal position and voluntarily agreed to be “defrocked” (i.e., deposed from her ordination) and the disciplinary investigation ended. It is said that “the wheels of criminal justice turn slowly,” but since the facts are not in dispute, it seems likely that Heather Cook will be convicted, will serve time, and that justice, imperfect as it is, will have been served.
But tragedies like this don’t happen in a vacuum. Just like alcoholism often takes place in a family system that has becoming perfectly balanced to enable and perpetuate the alcoholic, behaviors like those of Bishop Cook happened in the context of an organizational system that has become perfectly balanced to enable and perpetuate those kinds of behavior. Which means that tragedies like these are an opportunity for the the systems in which they occurred to take a self-critical look at the ways their systems and cultures may have been complicit and to discern the actions they must take to become healthier and less enabling.
At the immediate diocesan level and to a great extent, the leadership of the Diocese of Maryland has done that. Compared to the process that resulted in Cook’s election, the post-tragedy diocesan response has been courageous, transparent, and largely without defensiveness. The Bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, a friend and colleague of many years, has pledged a review of search and selection process that resulted in the election of person with obviously uncontrolled alcohol problems, how those problems continued to be observed without intervention up to and including the eve of her consecration. Just as important, Bishop Sutton has declared the Diocese of Maryland a “diocese in recovery,” and promised honest critical introspection into how the culture of the diocese enabled the kinds of behavior that led to this tragedy.
I hope and pray that Bishop Sutton and his people will follow through on that pledge and carry out its recommendations. So far, I have to say, I have been very impressed with Bishop Sutton’s response and that of his people.
The Church as a whole? Not so much… Continue reading