Head of Episcopal diocese tries to clarify comments on bishop’s drinking
e head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland sought Thursday to clarify what he knew about Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook’s drinking, and when he knew it.
Cook, who became the No. 2 leader in the diocese last September despite an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol in 2010, is accused in the December death of local cyclist Thomas Palermo.
She was indicted this week on charges including automobile manslaughter, driving under the influence and texting while driving during an accident resulting in death or serious bodily injury.
Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, the head of the diocese, said Thursday that he and others involved in the vetting process for Cook were aware of Cook’s 2010 arrest, but “we were not, in fact, aware that Heather was dealing with an ongoing addiction.”
“As a result,” Sutton said in a statement released by the diocese, “all of us viewed her 2010 DUI as a one-time incident, something that Heather herself would refer to during ‘meet-and-greet’ events as a difficult time in her life.”
Sutton hosted three forums in January at which diocese members and members of the public were invited to ask questions.
“I’ve recently learned that several members of our diocese are very concerned about a statement I made at some of the Heather Cook case forums,” he said in the statement. “More specifically, they are wondering why I said that neither I nor anyone I knew of in the Diocese of Maryland knew about her struggles with alcoholism.
“Please know that my answers during those forums were accurate and offered in response to specific questions about the vetting process.”
A spokesman for the diocese said members grew concerned this week after The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets reported that Sutton had suspected that Cook was inebriated at a dinner on Sept. 4, two days before her consecration as bishop.
Spokesman Dan Webster said several members have contacted the diocese wondering “how to square” those reports with Sutton’s comments at the January meetings.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, also attended the dinner. Sutton shared his concerns about Cook with Schori, according to a timeline entry posted online this week by the diocese. The consecration went ahead as planned.
Sharon Tillman, another diocesan spokesperson, has said that when Sutton alerted Schori to his suspicions, the matter became the responsibility of the national church.
By the time Sutton spoke at the forums, the national church had begun its disciplinary investigation into the case.
Sutton said Thursday he declined to share his suspicions about the Sept. 4 dinner at those forums to protect the confidentiality of the inquiry.
“But as events continued to develop,” he said, “I came to believe our diocese would no longer be served by waiting for the entire [disciplinary] process to be completed.
“Maintaining an appropriate, healthy balance between promises of confidentiality and the need for truth-telling is difficult under such complex circumstances,” he concluded. “I prayerfully ask you to consider your bishop’s need to find that balance.”
Sutton’s statement is to be distributed at churches throughout the diocese Sunday. A fourth forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. James’ Parish in Lothian.