Bishop charged in hit-and-run case resigns, is deposed

Bishop Heather Cook, of driving under the influence and fatally striking a bicyclist, has resigned.

The clerical career of Heather Elizabeth Cook, the Episcopal bishop accused of driving drunk and killing a local bicyclist in December, is over.

Cook, 58, has resigned as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, the diocese said Friday.

A few hours later, the national church issued an accord banning Cook from acting as an ordained person, a ruling that marked the end of a disciplinary investigation the church has been conducting since just after the Dec. 27 crash that killed Thomas Palermo, 41, a married father of two from Baltimore.

"Heather has been deposed from all ordination — as a bishop, as a deacon, as a priest. She no longer has standing in the church," said the Rt. Rev. Robert Ihloff, former bishop of the Diocese of Maryland.

By accepting a June court date, Cook last month entered a plea of not guilty on all 13 charges against her.

Ihloff, who has been critical of how the diocese handled the aftermath of the accident, said the outcome brings relief to a church that has been torn and frustrated by the case, now more than four months old.

"I'm very happy that it has finally happened. I only wish it could have happened earlier," Ihloff said.

Church canons allow a banned cleric to appeal, but church insiders saw such a move as unlikely.

Cook tendered her resignation by letter this week, and Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton and the diocesan standing committee — the church's equivalent of a board of trustees — accepted it Friday.

The committee had asked for Cook's resignation in January, the same month that the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the top official of the national church, indefinitely suspended Cook's right to function as a priest.

The accord, signed by Jefferts Schori, makes that condition permanent and "resolves all ecclesiastical disciplinary matters involving Cook," according to a statement released by Jefferts Schori's office in New York.

Cook's attorney, David Irwin, confirmed that his client would no longer function as an ordained person.

"More importantly, on behalf of Ms. Cook, we want to express our deepest sympathies and regret to the Palermo family for their tragic loss," he said.

Ihloff, the interim rector at Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, said parishioners and fellow clerics have been hoping and praying for as quick a resolution to the case as possible.

"There is a lot of sympathy for the Palermo family, and there has been a lot of anger" over Cook's role in his death, he said.

"There's awareness that she has a disease" of alcoholism, he said. "But there are so many thousands of people inside and outside the church who have the same disease and have stepped up to the plate and done the hard work of living in recovery for years. While there's sympathy for Heather, there's also concern that hopefully she'll now take the necessary steps to deal with it."

Cook, who would have marked her 26th year as a priest this week, remains in treatment for alcoholism, Irwin said.

Cook was ordained as bishop suffragan, or the No. 2 bishop in the diocese, in September after a 17-month search. She was the first female bishop in the history of the Maryland diocese.

In the aftermath of the fatal accident, it was revealed that a search committee for the diocese had known Cook had been arrested on the Eastern Shore for drunken driving in 2010 but never shared that information with the men and women who voted on her candidacy. Police said that Cook's blood-alcohol level at the time of her arrest was more than three times the legal limit.

The revelation sparked outrage inside and outside the church as well as widespread debate over how the church selects its leaders.

The national church will address how it chooses bishops at its general convention in Salt Lake City this summer.

Authorities allege that in December, Cook was driving drunk and sending text messages when she struck and killed Palermo on Roland Avenue in Roland Park. They say she initially left the scene of the crash before returning. Her blood alcohol level that day registered at 0.22 percent, more than three time the legal limit.

Cook faces 13 criminal charges and has a trial date of June 4.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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