Bishop called 2010 DUI arrest 'a major wake-up call'

Bishop charged with manslaughter pleaded for leniency after 2010 arrest.

Standing before an Eastern Shore judge in 2010 after being caught driving drunk, the Rev. Heather Elizabeth Cook and her attorney pleaded for leniency.

Cook was undergoing three different forms of counseling, including Alcoholics Anonymous, her attorney said. And she had voluntarily had an ignition interlock device installed in her car.

"I am regarding this as a major wake-up call in my life, and I'm doing things now that I was not able to do without this motivation," Cook told District Judge John E. Nunn III, according to an audio transcript obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.

She received one year of supervised probation — and a warning from the judge.

"There are people who deal with this problem every day," Nunn told her. "Some people get it right and they never come back before this court, and others just keep coming back, coming back, coming back — like the swallows to Capistrano, you know?"

Four years later, Cook, who became the first female bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was back in court, charged with manslaughter and other offenses for allegedly driving drunk and sending text messages when she struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo in Baltimore on Dec. 27.

Diocesan leaders have asked for her resignation. And the national Episcopal Church is conducting its own investigation.

The audio recording from the October 25, 2010, hearing in Caroline County provides some of the first glimpses into Cook's struggle with alcohol. Her attorney in that case, Dennis J. Farina, told the judge that Cook was consumed with self-doubt.

"It's a fair statement to say that despite her accomplished career and her accomplished background, she found herself in a position just wondering really what she had accomplished and began to turn, shall we say, in the wrong direction for comfort and solace," Farina said.

Since the crash that killed Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two, Cook and those in her inner circle have declined interview requests. But others who know her were surprised to learn of the 58-year-old's personal struggles, and said she was a stellar church leader who was well-regarded in the community.

Harry Snell of York, Pa., has known Cook for 20 years and wrote a letter of recommendation when she applied to become bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. He said in an interview last week that he did not know about her 2010 DUI arrest.

Asked whether he would have recommended her anyway, he paused.

Cook was such a talent, he said, that if he had assurances she was addressing her drinking problem, he still would have.

"There are lots of people in this world who have a drinking problem. If they work hard at taking care of it, they can be contributors to society. If we 'X' them out too quickly, we can end up wasting a lot of talent," he said.

In an autobiographical statement provided during the bishop search, Cook described being uncertain of her purpose as a youngster. She "coveted" a position of student council president but was passed over, which she said had a "profound" effect on her. Instead, she was picked to edit the yearbook.

"Looking back, this was part of a consistent life theme: being placed, over and over again, in situations where a dedicated communicator was needed," Cook wrote.

Cook's father, the Rev. Halsey Cook, made public his struggle with alcoholism in the 1970s while serving as rector of Old St. Paul's congregation in downtown Baltimore. At the time, he was credited with calling attention to what he called a "rampant epidemic in our society."

Heather Cook said she traveled the world — studying in Canada and England, working as an au pair in Spain, on a kibbutz in Israel, and as a grape-picker in France — before returning to Baltimore, where she had grown up in a religious family.

She said her calling to enter the seminary occurred then.

"I realized I needed to find my own identity, and not wait for it to come through marriage," she wrote. "I was faithful to this call, and on the day I was ordained, at last it felt right."

Nancy Brand Patel of Charlotte, N.C., was a first-year student at Stuart Hall, a girls' boarding school in Staunton, Va., when Cook served as chaplain there between 1987 and 1990.

Her gentleness and concern for others were an obvious strength, and as Patel remembers it, Cook didn't appear to have much of a social life, which "probably left her with the time she needed for her work."

"She had me and my friends over to her apartment and baked us cookies. Believe me, that was not the kind of thing our teachers did," Patel said. "She sat on the floor while we sat on the sofa. She was just so down-to-earth."

The Rev. Dr. David J. Robson is the rector, or pastor, of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in York, Pa., where Cook held that position from 1994 to 2004. She presided over and helped lead "a bountiful period in the life of the church," said Robson, one in which she led a significant expansion of Sunday school and youth ministry programs and helped spearhead the construction of a great hall.

She also set herself apart with her work with bereaved families.

"During her time, there were a lot of situations where there was a death in a family, and [parishioners tell me] Heather was always very caring, very present, a supportive presence hour by hour," Robson said.

Snell said Cook excelled in what he called a rector's two main functions — administering the affairs of the church and serving spiritually. She was an active leader as an administrator, he said, a priest who judged talent well, found the right people for the right jobs, and kept the business elements of the church running smoothly.

She also placed a premium on welcoming others, which Snell said helped attract more families with children and expanded the congregation's numbers so much that St. Andrew's had to build an addition — a project she helped spearhead.

"I've been here in York 35 years, and at one point, I could count the number of children [in the church] on one hand. It was not real exciting. When Heather was here, we had kids all over the place," he said.

Snell, who worked closely with Cook on an almost daily basis, said that in her 10 years in York she "never showed the slightest inkling" she had "any issues whatsoever" with alcohol or drugs.

"This thing is such a disaster. It's horrible for the Palermo family, but it's a double tragedy because Heather really is great," Snell said.

Robson added, "My first reaction, like everyone else's, was shock. All the facets of the story — it's just completely overwhelming."

After York, Cook spent 10 years with the Episcopal Diocese of Easton in an administrative position overseeing 35 churches. The diocese has declined to comment about Cook and how it handled her 2010 arrest, and rectors from various churches did not return requests for comment.

In 2010, Cook was arrested after she was observed by a sheriff's deputy driving on a shredded tire on the shoulder of a Caroline County road. She registered a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit in Maryland. She had vomit on her clothes, and liquor, wine and marijuana in her car, according to authorities.

She told the deputy, who called off her field sobriety test out of concern she would hurt herself, that she'd had a few drinks in Pennsylvania while driving back from Canada.

"Anyone who has read that DUI report couldn't possibly believe that was the only time," said the Rt. Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, the former bishop of the Maryland diocese, who has been critical of the church's handling of Cook.

Sharon Tillman, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, said that the bishop suffragan search committee knew of Cook's prior charge and considered it before she was elevated. But some who voted in the bishop selection process have said voting members were not advised of it.

"She was encouraged at least twice, as part of the process, to share that information. During the public 'meet and greets' she alluded to a difficult time in her life, but was not explicit about the DUI charge," Tillman said. "Members of the search committee could not divulge the information without her permission, due to the confidential nature of the process."

Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Maryland diocese, who declined interview requests last week, told church members at a meeting in January that "there was no indication that she was [an] alcoholic, but that this was a one-time event."

"How many people here have driven under the influence of alcohol?" he asked at one point.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 17 million adults had an alcohol-use disorder — defined as "drinking that causes distress or harm" — in 2012, and 1.4 million adults received treatment at a specialized facility.

Robert White, director of behavioral health at the University of Maryland's department of psychiatry, said it is a natural tendency for a professional with a substance abuse problem to keep it hidden.

"These things are occurring outside of that world, and they protect it at all costs," he said. "Many times that's the last thing to go. Everything else can be in shambles."

The 2010 arrest was Cook's first. But at her plea hearing, Cook and Farina, her lawyer, acknowledged that she had been struggling.

Farina avoided mentioning Cook's job in open court — he referred to it as a "rather sensitive position" and handed Nunn a packet of papers that laid it out — but described her work as "very demanding and very taxing."

Cook was in "extensive counseling" with an Eastern Shore clinical social worker, and said she had been for a year. She was also attending counseling with the Talbot County Department of Health and attending AA meetings.

Nunn agreed to give Cook probation before judgment, which would allow her to clear her criminal record if she successfully completed her probation.

"Everybody makes mistakes, and the smart people are the ones that learn from them." Nunn said.

"Maybe they're genetic; they're predisposed to do that. I don't know the answer. But I know it doesn't have to be that way," Nunn continued. "I know there's lots of people in lots of places, with very important jobs and are very serious, and they're alcoholics, and they deal with it every day. … In some ways, it may give you some understanding in terms of the people that you deal with every day as to what they go through and what you have to face."

White, the addiction specialist, said treatment must be required, and the participant needs to follow through. An incident like an arrest can be used as leverage for intervention, by the courts or an employer.

"The message that needs to get out is, you can't just have somebody have a major incident and then just let them be in control of what their treatment plan is," he said. Those involved in monitored treatment plans have a success rate of 80 percent, White said.

The crash that killed Palermo occurred at 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 27. Prosecutors say Cook and Palermo were heading south on Roland Avenue when Cook veered into the bike lane and struck Palermo from behind. He was thrown onto the hood of her 2001 Subaru and hit the windshield.

Prosecutors say the impact left a hole in her windshield, but she continued driving and left the scene, returning 30 minutes later. A breath test administered later showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.22.

At Cook's bail review hearing, her attorney said she had entered treatment at Father Martin's Ashley in Harford County and had plans for more extensive treatment. She is awaiting trial while free on bail.

On Monday, the Maryland diocese's standing committee sent a letter to Cook saying they had "agreed unanimously that you are no longer able to function effectively in the position of Bishop Suffragan given recent events."

Cook's attorney said she was aware of the letter, but the diocese says it has not received a response.

The national Episcopal Church is conducting its own investigation, which could lead to defrocking Cook.

Before sentencing Cook to one year of supervised probation for the 2010 incident, Nunn told Cook that she was "not the first person in this world that has a problem with alcohol, and you're not going to be the last."

He added, "There's that old saying that things happen for a reason; this court believes they do."

Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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