Bishop Heather Cook of Baltimore killed a bicyclist last week.
She apparently left her apartment at the end of Roland Avenue in Baltimore. She drove south down a section of Roland Ave which is 6 lanes, untrafficked, with clearly marked bike lanes and smooth pavement.
There she encountered Tony Palermo and ran into him. He was an expert bicyclist, and worked in the bicycle section at REI. My son frequently saw him bicycling. There were other bicyclists around.
She continued on Roland Avenue and turned around. The bicyclists saw her car and realized it must have been the one involved in the accident. A bicyclist pursued her to get her license number. She drove into her gated community but the guard kept the bicyclist out.
45 minutes after the accident (according to eyewitnesses) she returned to the scene of the accident. An official from the Episcopal diocese was on hand.
Cook had had a previous encounter with the police:
Court records show that a sheriff’s deputy stopped Cook on Sept. 10, 2010, in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore. The officer wrote in a report that Cook was driving on the shoulder at 29 mph in a 50 mph-zone with a shredded front tire. The deputy noted that a strong alcohol odor emanated from the vehicle and that Cook had vomit down the front of her shirt.
The officer wrote that Cook was so intoxicated that she couldn’t finish a field sobriety test because she might fall and hurt herself.
According to the report, Cook registered .27 percent blood alcohol content. The legal limit in Maryland is .08 percent.
The officer found two small bags of marijuana in the vehicle, along with paraphernalia, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of liquor.
Cook pleaded guilty to drunken driving, and the prosecution of marijuana possession charges was dropped. A judge sentenced her to a fine and probation before judgment on the DUI charge, meaning her record could be cleared if she stayed out of trouble.
She was then made a bishop in 2012. Her father had been rector of Old St Paul’s, the society church in Baltimore. The committee that chose her was aware of the driving incident but did not share the information with others. Diocesan officials have defended their decision by claiming that the church is all about forgiveness.
Cook had given a sermon:
If we routinely drive 55 in a 30 mile-an-hour zone, we won’t be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us. Things happen suddenly, and we’re either prepared in the moment or we’re not, and we face the consequences. We can’t go back. We can’t do it over.
“In real life, there are no instant replays. I think this is something of a hard message to give to you today. My perception is that we live in the midst of a culture that doesn’t like to hold us accountable for consequences, that somehow everybody gets a free pass all the time. Well, we do in terms of God’s love and forgiveness, but we don’t in many of the things that happen, and it’s up to us to be responsible.”
Emily Heath, a clergywoman who herself in recovery, observes of Cook:
her 2010 DUI charges were particularly disturbing. Many of us in recovery never drove drunk, but the facts of her prior case seem to indicate that substance abuse was indeed a problem. My hope is that when she was charged she saw the need to get sober. My other hope is that the Episcopal Church supported her in that endeavor.
But as far as her consecration as bishop, a very short period of time had elapsed between her DUI incident and her elevation. If she was sober, she was still in “early sobriety” and taking on a position like this, with higher stress and demands on time, would have likely been discouraged. And, if she relapsed, as now seems likely, it was on her to step back and say “I need to focus on getting healthy.” But Bishop Cook alone is not at fault. Church communities are often too quick to push those who have had major falls back into the spotlight. They are not doing the one who is recovering any favors by pushing a false rhetoric of “forgiveness” or “grace”. Sometimes grace means saying “you need to work on yourself for a while”.
With Bishop Cook too many questions are unanswered, and too little time had elapsed since her “rock bottom” of a few years ago. Something went wrong, and she found an even lower “rock bottom”, and this time a man is dead, not because she was in recovery but because of her own bad decisions. Add to that the fact that this was a hit and run, and Bishop Cook took no responsibility for her actions until she was chased down, and it is clear that her behavior is exactly the opposite of what we are taught in recovery, regardless of whether or not she was drinking when she hit Mr. Palermo.
Tony Palermo left a widow and two children, 4 and 6 years old. He is being buried this morning from Immaculate Conception Church in Towson.
No charges have been filed in the death of Tony Palermo.
Bicyclists held a memorial ride on Roland Avenue.
Bishop Cook has made no statements.