Church: Md. bishop who left scene of fatal crash was 'in shock'

The Episcopal bishop who left the scene of the crash that killed a well-known local bicyclist in Baltimore last month told a colleague a short time after the incident that she was "in shock," the church said Tuesday.

Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, 58, the second-ranking official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, called the Rev. Canon Scott Slater about 20 minutes after the crash Dec. 27 that killed Thomas Palermo in Roland Park.


"She said she thought she had hit a bicyclist and was in shock," according to statement released by the diocese.

The national Episcopal Church, meanwhile, said it had opened an investigation into the matter.


Disciplinary actions against bishops in the Episcopal Church are relatively rare. An investigation is a quasi-judicial process in which Cook could be stripped of her authority in the church. For now, she is on administrative leave.

Baltimore police have released few details of their investigation. Cook has not been charged.

"Currently, we are following the disciplinary processes of the church, and we are providing pastoral care," said Neva Rae Fox, a spokeswoman for the national Episcopal Church. "We hold Bishop Cook, the Diocese of Maryland and the Palermo family in our prayers."

Fox said the details of the church investigation would "remain confidential."


Cook was driving the vehicle involved in the accident with Palermo about 2:40 p.m. Dec. 27, according to church officials and her lawyer. She drove away from the scene in the 5700 block of Roland Ave., the diocese and witnesses said, but returned a short time later.

Palermo, 41, lived in the Baltimore County community of Anneslie with his wife and their two young children.

A software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he also built and repaired bicycles, and was well known in the Baltimore cycling community and beyond. Hundreds joined family members on New Year's Day for a memorial ride to the crash site, and many have expressed grief and anger over his death.

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, met Tuesday with clergy at a church conference center near Buckeystown. The diocese said the meeting was closed to the public to give more than 100 clergy members information about "what we know of the tragic accident, including police and church disciplinary investigations."

Participants expressed a range of emotions, Sutton told The Baltimore Sun after the meeting, including "despair, frustration, anger." Many were "just grieving" for the Palermo family and Cook, he said.

Sutton said the clergy planned to hold days of fasting and prayer for the Palermo family.

Slater, the chief assistant to Sutton, recounted his interactions with Cook after the crash to the clergy. Diocesan officials released a timeline Tuesday afternoon.

At 2:59 p.m., they said, Cook called Slater and said she thought she had hit a bicyclist and was in shock.

About 3:10, they said, Slater arrived at the scene and found Cook sitting in a patrol car. There was crime scene tape surrounding her car.

Slater called Sutton, gave a detective his statement about his telephone conversation with Cook, and contacted Jeff Ayres, the church's attorney, officials said.

At 5:27 p.m., they said, Baltimore police called Slater to ask him to pick up Cook at the station.

At Cook's apartment, officials said, Slater talked with Cook and a friend who had arrived to check on her dog and to make sure she wasn't alone.

Slater focused on providing pastoral care to Cook, officials said. They prayed together and he went home.

Slater was asked to return to the police station two days after the crash to give a recorded statement. He answered every question as "thoroughly and completely as he could recall," officials said, including details of his conversation with Cook during the ride to her apartment.

Slater declined to provide details of his conversations with Cook, citing the ongoing police investigation. Church officials said he is "cooperating fully" with both the police and church investigations.

The church said Cook is now in "good hands and receiving care that will hopefully help her on her journey forward."

Slater called the crash a "terrible tragedy."

"Heather and I were in a professional colleague group prior to her election," he said in the church statement. "I consider her a friend as well as a colleague. I am deeply saddened for her as well as the Palermo family."

David Irwin, Cook's attorney, said the church has been supportive of Cook.

"I'm appreciative they are still supportive of her," he said. "They've been kind to her, and we appreciate it."

Irwin has declined to comment on details of the case.

Cook, an Episcopal priest for more than 25 years, was elected bishop suffragan of the Maryland diocese in May.

In 2010, she was arrested and charged in Caroline County with driving under the influence of alcohol. She pleaded guilty, received probation before judgment and was ordered to pay a $300 fine.

Sutton said several clergy members asked Tuesday how Cook could have become bishop suffragan after the 2010 arrest.

In the Episcopal Church, he said, "no one person decides who is appointed to any office." Candidates are evaluated by groups.

"All candidates have warts. Everybody deserves a second chance," Sutton said. "When the church ceases to give second chances, when the church ceases to show compassion, we cease to be the church."

The Rev. Timothy H. Grayson, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Baltimore, said several clergy members asked whether the search committee knew of Cook's arrest.

Grayson said members of that committee told them they had a thorough discussion before advancing Cook.

"The question was asked: 'Who among us has an absolutely clean slate?'" he said.

Slater said church officials are trying to be as transparent as possible without disrupting the investigation.

He noted that the diocese released Cook's name. The police have not.

Slater said the diocese is organizing a fundraiser for the Palermo family. He said many members have donated money already.



Recommended on Baltimore Sun