The head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland apologized Wednesday for failing to recognize "warning signs" that Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook — now facing drunken-driving and other charges in connection with a crash that killed a bicyclist — suffers from alcoholism.
"I regret that my sister in faith, Heather, apparently caused so much damage and suffering due to her disease of alcoholism, and [I'm] sorry I was unable to recognize warning signs of her illness," the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton said in a message to church members on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a 40-day season of repentance.
Sutton added that he regretted shortcomings in the selection process by which Cook was made the No. 2 bishop in the diocese last year, despite an earlier arrest on a DUI charge. He pledged to work to "revise a process that failed us at some crucial points."
Sutton's statement was the most explicit apology a diocesan official has made in relation to the case.
Cook, 58, was indicted in Baltimore this month on 13 charges in the death of Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two young children. She is accused of hitting Palermo with her car Dec. 27 while texting and driving drunk along Roland Avenue in North Baltimore. She has not yet entered a plea.
The diocese has acknowledged that when it was conducting a search for a new bishop in 2013, its search committee learned that Cook had been arrested on a DUI charge three years earlier while employed by the Easton diocese. Spokesmen have said, however, that they never learned the details of the Sept. 10, 2010, incident, including that Cook's blood-alcohol was measured at 0.27, more than three times the legal limit, or that police said she had two bags of marijuana in the car at the time.
A local paper, the Easton Star-Democrat, included that information in an article at the time.
Concluding that the incident was "a one-time problem," the Maryland diocese chose to leave it to Cook to disclose information about her arrest to the church members who would vote in the election for bishop. She never did so explicitly, Sutton has said, referring simply to "a difficult time" in her life. She was ordained a bishop on Sept. 6 of last year.
Cook's attorney, David B. Irwin, could not be reached for comment. He said last month that Cook had entered a treatment program at Father Martin's Ashley in Havre de Grace, a treatment center for alcohol abuse, and had plans for further treatment.
The crash and its aftermath have roiled the church, sparked controversy about how it chooses its leaders and left members pressing officials for explanations.
"Many Episcopalians are asking what people in positions of authority in the church knew about [Cook's] history of addiction and driving while under the abuse of alcohol," the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, a leader in the national church's governing body, said in a statement last week.
"The church needs to "repent for our role in Thomas Palermo's death," she added. Jennings said she planned to press for reform in the way the church elects bishops and referred to the church's "systemic denial about alcohol and other drug abuse."
Asked about Sutton's Lenten statement, one communications expert questioned the wisdom of discussing the case in a religious message.
"Does the Cook matter, and Sutton's apparent effort to set the record straight on what he knew, belong in this message about Lent to his people, who have plenty of their own everyday preoccupations and spiritual challenges?" said Louise Schiavone, a senior lecturer in business communication and leadership ethics at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business. "I have to wonder how this helps," she said.
Sutton's statement opened with seven paragraphs on the broader meaning of Lent, a period of prayer, fasting and reflection in which, he said, "we are called to self-examination, called to identify what holds us back from walking in the light of God."
This process, he said, calls us to say "I'm sorry" — words of repentance he said are reflected in the very origins of Christianity, when John the Baptist asked followers to confess their sins as he prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ.
In his case, Sutton went on, repentance meant coming to terms with several elements of the Cook case, including the "unbearable loss" suffered by Palermo's family and Sutton's lack of knowledge of "all the details" of Cook's 2010 arrest.
"I humbly repent relying on the information we were given rather than insisting on getting more detailed information about her earlier arrest," he said.
The diocese has said Cook's previous employer, the Diocese of Easton, strongly recommended her for the position of bishop even though the 2010 DUI arrest occurred during her ministry there.
Cook is free on $2.5 million bail. The diocese has asked her to resign, but she has not responded to the request. Spokesmen for the Episcopal Church have said canon law prohibits the national church from firing Cook before its formal disciplinary inquiry is complete.