Up until now, I have avoided discussing on-line the death of Mr. Thomas Palermo of Baltimore, Maryland after he was hit by the car driven by the Bishop Suffragan of Maryland, the Rt. Rev. Heather Cooke. Part of this was to allow the investigation to move forward. Part of this was because, as a member of the editorial team on The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe, I wanted to preserve the integrity of our work there. And part of this is, frankly, because I did not want to add to the social media "trial by media" circus that others have addressed (here, here, and here) so eloquently.
Still there are many feelings to process. And there is much we have to learn and work through out of this tragedy.
The following came across my screen this morning. It is written by the Rev. Anjel Scarborough for the people of Grace Church, Brunswick, Maryland, and it summarizes well the facts as we now know them, and offers a useful perspective going forward. I am grateful to her for her wisdom. Here is an excerpt, but I urge you to read it all.
There has been much speculation and outrage expressed in the media – both in newspapers and on social media. Pastorally, I felt that refraining from speaking until the facts of the investigations became available rather than adding to speculation was an appropriate Christian response. Now that charges have been filed and having attended a clergy meeting with Bishop Sutton and diocesan staff this past Tuesday, I am in a better position to now speak to our Grace family as your rector....
...I want to address many of the questions which have arisen regarding this tragedy: How could someone with a history of driving under the influence be elected bishop? Did anyone know about this prior arrest? Did the search committee or standing committee fail to exercise due diligence in vetting the candidates for bishop? Bishop Sutton and the diocesan staff addressed questions about the search process on Tuesday and I want to share that with you.
The conclusion I have reached is that our search committee and standing committee followed the guidelines from the national church but that our guidelines are woefully inadequate and naïve in addressing the complex problems of substance abuse and addiction. Questions regarding how one is managing and treating a chronic condition like addiction, or any other chronic condition which could impact a clergy’s ability to serve as a church leader, are questions which need to be addressed as part of the search process. I strongly believe our national guidelines need revision to address this deficiency but recognize that within the limits of what they could do our search and standing committees did their job to the best of their ability.
Some have expressed their feeling that the details of Heather’s DUI should have been made public to those charged with electing her. Heather was encouraged to self-disclose this during the walkabout meetings. She chose not to disclose. In hindsight, her lack of transparency over disclosing this raises serious questions about whether or not she was addressing her alcoholism. Indiscriminately publicizing the details of a DUI beyond the search and standing committees would have been akin to labeling someone with a scarlet letter: it is shaming. Shaming is never redemptive or Christian and serves to discourage those suffering from alcoholism and addiction from seeking needed treatment. Revising the process for more transparency in disclosing to search committees and standing committees would likely have resulted in Heather’s candidacy for bishop ending before her name was put forward for election.
I have been asked as to whether or not Heather was subjected to a criminal background check as all candidates for ordination are in the Episcopal Church.... The responsibility for running a background check for bishop’s candidates is that of the Presiding Bishop’s office at the national church, not the local diocese.
Some have made the blanket statement that no alcoholic should ever be ordained. I disagree strongly with that statement. We have many fine clergy in the Episcopal Church who are alcoholics in recovery. They have many years of sobriety to their credit and work solid programs to maintain their sobriety. They seek ways to be held accountable in sobriety and are transparent in disclosing their alcoholism when it is appropriate and when it can be of service to another alcoholic or to help educate others about the disease. Our church would be much poorer without their ministry. I do believe we need to better address the problems of clergy or candidates for ordination whose alcoholism is active and who are acting out in ways which damage themselves and others. I pray we can begin to address this in the wake of Tom’s tragic death.
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.
This tragic and painful situation has brought grief, a sense of betrayal, anger, and embarrassment to all of us in the Diocese of Maryland. Yet St. Paul reminds us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The many failures which resulted in Thomas Palermo’s death should not have happened, but they did. I ask your continued prayers for the Palermo family as they grieve. I ask you to pray for those who will be charged with bringing Heather Cook to trial that justice may be done for Tom’s family and the cycling community. I ask your prayers for Bishop Sutton and the staff at the diocesan offices as they move through this painful situation and seek healing. And I ask your prayers for Heather Cook that she may face the harsh reality of her alcoholism and, in accepting the consequences of her actions, be drawn to seek treatment to begin living a sober life. As always, I remain available to discuss these difficult issues with you in the coming days and weeks ahead.
The Rev. Anjel Scarborough, Rector
Well, okay... it is.
And I believe that an outright "no" or a hesitant, conditional "yes" might tell us all we need to know about the readiness of this particular person for a public office of witness, encouragement, and example within the Church while also living a life of recovery.
Part of the life of faith is that we do everything we possibly can with as much integrity as we can muster, and things still go wrong. The faithful question is how do we live faithfully and with integrity within that reality.
That is our challenge. If it were in our power to erase these horrible events and take back these terrible choices, we would. But we can't. We can only go forward. How we do that, and how we choose to live in the aftermath of sin, tragedy and death is crucial. The challenge before us as people of faith, as humans who carry around the image of God, is to accept and enter into the horror that we cannot change and cooperate with God into turning this into sacred, holy ground.