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After Heather Cook case, Episcopal Church still lacks accountability, urgency on substance abuse: Panel

A report commissioned after the Heather Cook scandal finds that the Episcopal Church U.S.A. still lacks the "urgency" and "accountability" to address substance abuse problem

The Episcopal Church U.S.A. still lacks sufficiently clear policies and record-keeping — and enough of a sense of urgency — to address the problem of substance abuse by clergy in its ranks, a panel commissioned by the church has concluded.

The church’s House of Bishops commissioned the study after a Maryland bishop struck and killed a bicyclist while driving intoxicated in Baltimore.

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Heather Elizabeth Cook, the No. 2 bishop in the Diocese of Maryland, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving, driving while texting and leaving the scene of an accident in the death in December 2014 of Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old married father of two young children. She was sentenced to seven years in prison.

In a 29-page report released online this week, a panel of 11 Episcopal leaders concluded that policies and cultural attitudes within the national church have long prevented clergy members and the communities they serve from taking appropriate steps to address “impaired clergy.”

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The panel said several factors have “disempowered” those who should take responsibility in such cases, including inconsistent vetting procedures in hiring, insufficient education on substance abuse, and a “tension” within the church between “the high value placed on forgiveness” and the importance of taking responsibility for the consequences of behaviors.

“The abdication of accountability is of primary concern to the commission,” the panel wrote.

The Rev. Canon Scott Slater, a top aide to Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton Taylor, said the report is part of a continuing process within the Episcopal Church. He said the church has already tightened many procedures since elevating Cook.

Legislation approved at the last General Convention, in 2015, updated policies on alcohol use and required more detailed screening of addiction history for candidates for ordination.

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“Nominating persons for the episcopacy has already gotten more rigorous for those with an addiction history,” he said, “and the recommendations from the report … will keep the momentum going that is already well underway in our denomination.”

The panel examined several case studies involving deacons, priests and bishops over the past several decades. It did not mention Cook by name or offer commentary on her case.

The Cook case roiled the city's cycling community and the national Episcopal Church.

Episcopal Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook was indicted on 13 charges Wednesday in the death last December of cyclist Thomas Palermo in North Roland Park, the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office announced.

Cook was driving on Roland Avenue in North Baltimore two days after Christmas 2014 when she struck Palermo, a senior software engineer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and a master bicycle frame builder. A breathalyzer taken half an hour after the collision measured her blood-alcohol level at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit in Maryland.

Cook is serving her sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. The Maryland Parole Commission denied her first request for parole last year.

The church’s screening practices came under scrutiny after it emerged that Cook had pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge on the Eastern Shore four years earlier — and that the search committee that selected her to be bishop had been aware of that 2010 arrest.

Diocesan officials said that committee members were never privy to its detail and that the panel left it up to Cook to tell her electors about it.

Officials have said she alluded to the case in parish meetings, but only in vague terms.

Cook became the diocese’s first female bishop in May 2014.

The 11-person Commission on Impairment and Leadership, which compiled the report, was chaired by the Very Rev. Martha J. Horne, the dean and president emerita of Virginia Theological Seminary, and included six current or former bishops, a marriage and family therapist, a physician, and the presiding bishop of Episcopal Church U.S.A., the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry.

The panel cited previous attempts by the church’s governing body, the General Convention, to address the problem of substance abuse. Those took the form of resolutions that the panel said “do not reflect the urgency and necessity of a clear, informed, consistent, and church-wide response to impairment.”

The language of the resolutions “reflects the ambivalence and indeed conflict inherent in the church’s general attitude toward this subject,” the panel said, and “do not reflect the urgency and necessity of a clear, informed, consistent, and church-wide response to impairment.”

The panel said the General Convention “has no uniform set of practices and policies with regard to background checks and pre-employment investigations.”

An audio recording from an October 25, 2010, court hearing provides some of the first insight into Bishop Heather Cook's struggle with alcohol.

The most commonly used system for clergy background checks, the panel said, includes a self-report questionnaire and employment history that has “no capability for verification.” On the theological side, the panel said, the church’s inadequate understanding of the concept of forgiveness “has often inhibited or prevented appropriate and effective intervention.”

The authors concluded that making the necessary changes will call for “demanding a significant cultural shift across the church,” one for which church leaders must take shared responsibility.

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