Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On tragedy, recovery, and being "an wholesome example."

The death of Thomas Palermo is an unspeakable tragedy that was absolutely avoidable. As person, priest, and cyclist, this whole situation heaps layers upon layers of sadness that at times feels overwhelming. I wish Thomas Palermo had not died while doing what he loved. I want Heather Cook to be held accountable for her rotten choices. I go back and forth grieving for the Palermo family, feeling angry at and then sorrowful for Cook. On top of it all, I feel anger that somehow my church "let" this happen. My heart is broken for everyone in this awful mess.

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.
  • Heather Cook self-disclosed her DUI to the chair of the search committee and Bishop Sutton. What level of detail she disclosed about her arrest was not discussed with us at the meeting. She received probation before judgment and satisfied all of the requirements of the court for her probation. In so doing, her record was eligible to be expunged. This was her first arrest for driving under the influence.
  • As per the national church’s guidelines, all of the bishop candidates were referred to a psychiatrist for evaluation. Heather was deemed fit to continue in the process. Exact details of what she discussed with the psychiatrist are protected under HIPAA laws.
  • The search committee and standing committee were told “a candidate has a DUI in their past” and both committees were asked if this would disqualify the candidate. No other details of Heather’s arrest were disclosed, such as how long ago it happened (4 years ago), what her blood alcohol content was at the time of arrest (the breathalyzer registered .27 – indicating severe intoxication), and the presence of drug paraphernalia and marijuana in the car (a charge which was dropped). This was in keeping with the national guidelines on handling sensitive information in a search process.
  • The information about Heather’s prior DUI was not disclosed to the electing convention per the national guidelines.
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.
Faithfully,
The Rev. Anjel Scarborough, Rector
As a former hospital and emergency services chaplain, I am being drawn to learn from tragedy, and to improve things so that the disaster won't happen again. Or at least so that we respond better and better mitigate the damage. I can understand the anger from people who trusted Bishop Cook and are angry that the process that they participated in could have produced such a result. 
I agree that while the process for vetting the background was followed and everything done "right" (or at least as right they were imagined to be) when Cook was nominated and elected, we will have to to tweak and modify the process to do better going forward. We must do better at making sure that the leaders we select have good judgment and are "an wholesome example."
Having said that, we should not delude ourselves. As Blessed St. Murphy teaches, what can go wrong, will. We could do everything "right" and make no mistakes whatsoever and things can still go wrong. It is part and parcel of living as three dimensional beings who are both mortal and are subject to sin. 
Whether we are personally addicted or not, the AA saying applies in this case: "There but for the grace of God go I." Any one of us could have been Thomas Palermo. And any one of us could have been Heather Cook. This is yet one more reason that the Church celebrates Lent.
Still, Christians are not fatalists. We believe that God has healed and is healing creation through the incarnation and glorification and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that we have the choice and the power to align our actions to God's purposes. So we can and must work for change. We must do better. 
It occurred to me that one question, or one string of questions, might have helped this along. With with the clarity of hindsight, these are the questions that I wish the search and nominating had asked Heather Cook, and I hope that every future search & nominating committee asks some future candidate for the episcopate who has an addictions history:
"Have you ever discussed your addiction and your recovery with your parishioners and colleagues?"
and
"How have you integrated your recovery into your preaching, pastoral care, and teaching?"
and,
"Would you be willing to have a candid discussion of your experience with the whole search and nominating committee? 

and finally,

How would you answer a question about your DUI in a public forum?"
My belief is that recovery is not just something you do, but something one lives. That really successful recovery happens when the person not only refrains from drinking or using drugs but integrates what it means to be in "constant recovery" into their daily living. Recovery requires the whole person in a living context: emotional, relational, medical, and spiritual
The point of this line of questions is not to see the person squirm in their seat.

Well, okay... it is. 
In fact, if the person didn't squirm, even a little, when confronted with these notions, I'd be the most worried. 

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.
The difficult part is that this question will prevent neither bad luck nor bad judgement. There is not a screening tool on earth that will guarantee that there will never be, at some future time, some future person, otherwise qualified and vetted in every possible way, who won't do something stupid, tragic, and deadly.

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.
The question is not whether the person is in treatment or even if they have stopped drinking. The issue is whether the person is living a life of constant attentiveness, reflection, review, and prayer that recovery demands and whether this person is living in isolation or in community with those who can help her or him live their sobriety. 
Simply talking about alcoholism and addiction is not enough. Simply going to treatment is not enough. Tragically and ironically, Bishop Cook perhaps knows this better than anyone because she is the daughter of a beloved priest who was also an alcoholic who struggled with staying with the program right up until he died from his addiction. 
At the same time, there are many priests in recovery who have integrated their recovery into their living and into their stories and thus into their ministry in ways that have richly served their congregants. Put simply, they have discovered--probably the hard way-- how to turn their addiction and recovery into "an wholesome example to the people."
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.

6 comments:

The Rev Anonymous said...

This is thoughtful post. I agree that abstinence from all substances is really the "ground floor" of recovery, and but a beginning. But I strongly disagree, as an alcoholic in recovery, with this statement: "The question is not whether the person is in treatment or even if they have stopped drinking."

Not drinking is only a beginning, but it is absolutely essential. Alcoholics who are drinking are capable of many unintended harms. Yes, we're all capable of such harms and yes that is what Lent identifies, but I speak from experience when I say that the difference between drinking and not drinking is enormous for a real alcoholic. Quite simply, no alcoholic who has been unable to achieve lasting sobriety should be further elevated in the Church hierarchy, in my option.

Lastly, the nature of the disease is so cunning that I am quite uncomfortable with all the priests/pastors in recovery (of which I am one) who have blown their anonymity in recent weeks in order to share their opinion about this crisis. A plain reading of AA's traditions indicates the problem this. And to be clear, the problem is this: no individual member represents AA/*A., and we addicts are all subject to a "fall from grace." This is the nature of powerlessness that we address in Step One. I really wish, therefore, that these pastors would cease to "out" their membership in AA so publicly.

Priest and Anonymous Member of AA.

The Rev Anonymous said...

This is thoughtful post. I agree that abstinence from all substances is really the "ground floor" of recovery, and but a beginning. But I strongly disagree, as an alcoholic in recovery, with this statement: "The question is not whether the person is in treatment or even if they have stopped drinking."

Not drinking is only a beginning, but it is absolutely essential. Alcoholics who are drinking are capable of many unintended harms. Yes, we're all capable of such harms and yes that is what Lent identifies, but I speak from experience when I say that the difference between drinking and not drinking is enormous for a real alcoholic. Quite simply, no alcoholic who has been unable to achieve lasting sobriety should be further elevated in the Church hierarchy, in my option.

Lastly, the nature of the disease is so cunning that I am quite uncomfortable with all the priests/pastors in recovery (of which I am one) who have blown their anonymity in recent weeks in order to share their opinion about this crisis. A plain reading of AA's traditions indicates the problem this. And to be clear, the problem is this: no individual member represents AA/*A., and we addicts are all subject to a "fall from grace." This is the nature of powerlessness that we address in Step One. I really wish, therefore, that these pastors would cease to "out" their membership in AA so publicly.

Priest and Anonymous Member of AA.

The Rev Anonymous said...

This is thoughtful post. I agree that abstinence from all substances is really the "ground floor" of recovery, and but a beginning. But I strongly disagree, as an alcoholic in recovery, with this statement: "The question is not whether the person is in treatment or even if they have stopped drinking."

Not drinking is only a beginning, but it is absolutely essential. Alcoholics who are drinking are capable of many unintended harms. Yes, we're all capable of such harms and yes that is what Lent identifies, but I speak from experience when I say that the difference between drinking and not drinking is enormous for a real alcoholic. Quite simply, no alcoholic who has been unable to achieve lasting sobriety should be further elevated in the Church hierarchy, in my option.

Lastly, the nature of the disease is so cunning that I am quite uncomfortable with all the priests/pastors in recovery (of which I am one) who have blown their anonymity in recent weeks in order to share their opinion about this crisis. A plain reading of AA's traditions indicates the problem this. And to be clear, the problem is this: no individual member represents AA/*A., and we addicts are all subject to a "fall from grace." This is the nature of powerlessness that we address in Step One. I really wish, therefore, that these pastors would cease to "out" their membership in AA so publicly.

Priest and Anonymous Member of AA.

Tall Blonde said...

Even if she hadn't been elected Bishop Suffragan she could have driven drunken and killed a bicyclist. But hopefully the points here (about this death being avoidable) were suggesting that she would have been sober if the right questions had been asked?

Andrew Gerns said...

Dear The Rev. Anonymous: Thank you for your comment and for the clarification.

Andrew Gerns said...

Dear Tall Blonde: Not only am I interested in the right questions, but I am also interested in having the kind of community in our congregations where we support recovering addicts in safe, substantive ways. I don't know if anyone every challenged Bishop Cook to stay with the program or sought to help her get back into/stay in/take part in her treatment. And we need to do this whatever the status of the person is.