Sermon speaks volumes about cyclist's death

A Homeland church in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is slowly and painfully coming to grips with Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook's involvement in the traffic collision that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo on Roland Avenue.

"Has it been only a week since we heard the news?" the Rev. Caroline Stewart, associate senior rector of the Church of the Redeemer, asked parishioners in a sermon devoted exclusively to the issue.


In the sermon, which she delivered at Saturday's Faith@Five contemporary service and at two traditional services Sunday morning, Stewart said the still-unfolding facts in the case, coupled with "disturbing background information" about Cook's guilty plea to driving under the influence of alcohol in 2010, have permeated the Redeemer church community of 725 households. The issue has caused mixed emotions that touch on "many, many points of the human compass as well as the institution of The Episcopal Church," Stewart said.

Police are continuing to investigate the 2:40 p.m. Dec. 27 crash in the 5700 block of Roland Avenue. Police said Palermo, 41, of Anneslie, a married father of two, was riding his bicycle in the 5700 block of Roland Avenue when he was struck by a car. The driver has since been identified by the diocese and by her attorney as Cook, the second-ranking official in the diocese.


Cook initially drove away from the scene but returned a short time later, according to the diocese and witnesses at the scene. No charges have been filed.

Cook, who has been placed on administrative leave, is "barred from performing any duties of a bishop or a priest," diocese spokeswoman Sharon Tillman said.

Cook's attorney, David Irwin, said he has yet to receive any police or accident report, and couldn't comment on the details of the case. Irwin also declined to comment on the meeting.

"She's distraught about the tragedy of the death of the cyclist," Irwin said of Cook. "It's a horribly sad situation."


Irwin said Cook is declining to comment.

Making the situation more personal for Redeemer is that Cook, 58, a North Baltimore resident, was consecrated as bishop suffragan in a ceremony at Redeemer in September. She became the first female bishop in the history of the diocese.

Stewart said the reactions she has heard from parishioners at one of the region's largest Episcopal churches since Palermo's death have included "anger, shame, embarrassment, betrayal, compassion, outrage, grief, fear, disbelief, loss of faith and disappointment."

Stewart said churchgoers have raised concerns about issues ranging from why Cook initially left the scene of the accident to the diocese's vetting process that led to Cook's election.

"And what about the issue of moral responsibility? What are our expectations of behavior for those that are ordained?" Stewart asked. "And of course a foundational issue is the subject of Christian spirituality and the teachings about forgiveness."

But she said many of the questions have no answers yet, and that many members are ending their conversations with her "with a shaking of the head in confusion and frustration, along with a bruised spirit."

Redeemer's clergy also spent the weekend reaching out to congregants in a series of well-attended, off-the-record prayer meetings, where members could vent their feelings.

In interviews with parishioners leaving the 10 a.m. Sunday service, it was clear that they were experiencing the same gamut of emotions that Stewart was ascribing to them.

"It's complicated," said graphic designer Don McIntosh, of Reisterstown. "She really hit the nail on the head."

"I appreciated her touching on those (emotions)," said Steve Heaver, of Roland Park, director of the Fire Museum of Maryland, in Lutherville. "It's surprising how many of them touched me."

Many were withholding judgment until more information is known.

"I get the feeling people are waiting," said Heaver's wife, Melissa.

As for the diocese's decision to elect Cook bishop suffragan despite her guilty plea in the 2010 case, Muffie Sandberg, of Charlesbrooke, said, "We all do the best we can. I'm not going to throw stones at the church."

Among those attending Saturday's service at Redeemer were John and Elly Hayden, who told Stewart they are neighbors of the Palermos. Stewart asked the Haydens to tell ll the Palermo family personally how sorry the diocese is for their loss.

"We don't know how to reach out to that family yet," Stewart told the couple after the Saturday service.

In her sermon, Stewart told of "a glimmer of light" on New Year's Day, when many diocese clergy and members joined a memorial bike ride in which an estimated 1,000 mourners met at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in the Charles Village area.

The cyclists then rode up University Parkway and Roland Avenue to the 5700 block, where Palermo was struck.

St. David's Episcopal Church on Roland Avenue opened its doors for hospitality and Redeemer associate rector the Rev. Christina Paglinauan was among the riders.

The diocese encouraged its members to attend the bike ride "as a pastoral show of support," Stewart said. "We were so moved by your presence, particularly on such short notice."

The Right Rev. Robert Ihloff, who retired in 2007 as bishop of the diocese and has been interim rector at Redeemer since the Rev. Paul Tunkle retired last spring, led the weekend prayer meetings at the church, 5603 N. Charles St.

"It's really a chance for people to clear the air and ask any questions," Ihloff said.

"It's part of the healing process," Stewart said.

But for people like Albert Chatard, the healing is premature.

"We don't know everything yet," he said. "I don't know what I think. My head is reeling. It's just a tragedy all the way around."

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this article.

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