Episcopal Church council meets amid bishop's arrest

Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, 58, surrendered to police on Jan. 9. Her bail was set at $2.5 million.
Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, 58, surrendered to police on Jan. 9. Her bail was set at $2.5 million. (Baltimore City Police Department)

The executive council of the Episcopal Church met in Linthicum Heights this weekend to discuss topics that included its presence in Cuba, initiatives to address racism and an upcoming national conference in Salt Lake City.

However, the council didn't discuss a high-ranking Maryland bishop who was recently charged with manslaughter in the death of a bicyclist last month.


The three-day meeting of 70 of the church's bishops, priests, deacons, laypersons and staff coincides with the latest developments involving the death of bicyclist Thomas Palermo, 41, a married father of two, who was killed Dec. 27 in a crash on Roland Avenue in Baltimore. Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook was identified as the driver. Cook, 58, left the scene of the crash in the 5700 block of Roland Ave. but returned shortly after, police said.

Cook surrendered to police on Friday and was being held at central booking. A District Court commissioner set her bail at $2.5 million. She also faces other charges, including leaving the scene of the fatal accident and driving under the influence. Both the manslaughter and leaving-the-scene charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years. Cook's blood alcohol level was 0.22 percent, nearly triple the legal limit in Maryland, according to Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, who said that Cook was text-messaging at the time of the collision.

Although members of the executive council expressed sympathy for Palermo and his friends and family, they said the purpose of their quarterly meeting was to discuss various business matters relating to its 2.1 million members worldwide.

"Heather Cook has not been a topic of this meeting because this is a business meeting," said Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, a council member who is from Nevada.

The president of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, said that Palermo, his family and his "wide group of friends who are so deep in grief" were in the prayers of the church.

Cook, who in September became Maryland's bishop suffragan, the No. 2 leader of the diocese, underwent an extensive background check and psychological investigation regarding a 2010 drunken-driving incident in Caroline County, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

"One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness. We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption," the diocese said in a statement about the search process for an elected bishop.

Cook, who has spent 20 years as an Episcopal priest, pleaded guilty in 2010 to driving under the influence of alcohol in Caroline County. At 0.27 percent, Cook's blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit in Maryland. According to records, Cook received probation before judgment and was ordered to pay a $300 fine.

Cook did not attend this quarterly meeting. In fact, Cook has never attended the quarterly meetings, according to the Rev. Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the general convention.

Clark Jennings called Cook an "acquaintance" with whom she had communicated over the course of the past 15 years.

"The position she held in Easton is the same I held in Cleveland," she explained.

Asked if she had had any contact with Cook since Palermo's death, Clark Jennings said she had not.

The decision to hold the three-day meeting at the Maritime Institute of Technology in Linthicum Heights was made because of its proximity to the airport, train station and hotels, according to council members. The location of the meeting was determined more than two years ago, according to Neva Rae Fox, officer or public affairs and communications for the Episcopal Church.

"It Is not uncommon to have meetings in this location," Barlowe said, adding that the council has met at the venue five times since 2012. "The food is great. And BWI airport has lots of flights coming in."