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Episcopal leader in spotlight after bishop charged in Baltimore hit-and-run

Episcopal leader in spotlight after bishop charged in Baltimore hit-and-run

Just over two months ago, when Heather Elizabeth Cook, a newly ordained Episcopal bishop, was involved in an accident that left a bicyclist dead, the tragedy made headlines around the world, while sparking controversy within and outside the church.

Cook — who was drunk at the time of the accident, according to Baltimore police and prosecutors — had been made a bishop despite an arrest on DUI charges four years earlier. The Dec. 27 crash raised questions about how the Episcopal Church, already split over dogma and facing steep membership declines, chooses its leaders.

And it has put the stewardship of the national church's presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, in the spotlight.

Jefferts Schori, 60, has headed the 1.9 million-member national church since 2006. Her tenure has been a period of major schism, and she has drawn criticism for what some say is her overly litigious response to conservative Episcopalians who have broken with the church over its official support of same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

Jefferts Schori, who presided at Cook's consecration Sept. 6, has faced criticism before — perhaps most notably when she welcomed a former Roman Catholic priest who was a pedophile into her home diocese without telling parishioners about his past.

Now, some Episcopalians in the Baltimore area have been asking how their diocese could have put forward a candidate it knew had a drunk-driving arrest without telling them. The selection committee that vetted Cook knew of the 2010 DUI on the Eastern Shore — though not all its details — and decided not to pass the information on to those who would vote in her election last May.

Following the fatal crash in December, both the diocese and national church say they are reviewing the process by which leaders are selected. That's a timely concern, given that the church is poised to choose a successor to Jefferts Schori, whose nine-year term expires this summer.

The era in which Jefferts Schori has presided would have challenged any leader. The Episcopal Church, like other mainline Protestant denominations, has long been losing membership. And like other denominations, it has been divided in recent decades over questions about same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

Some say her vocal backing of such causes has brought the church more into line with Christ's teaching to "love thy neighbor."

The Right Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, the former bishop of the Maryland diocese, is one.

Of the three presiding bishops he has known, he says Jefferts Schori is the most broadly capable. "She's unflappable, she's fair and she's an excellent preacher. I'm hoping the next one will do just as good a job." said Ihloff, currently interim rector at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore.

Others say her approach has alienated members. The church has faced steep losses since the early 2000s. In 2013 alone, the national church reported a drop of more than 27,000 members (1.7 percent) and the closing of 45 parishes.

Those figures don't include the losses incurred when the Diocese of South Carolina disaffliated in late 2012, taking 28,000 members with it.

During her tenure, four other dioceses have broken off to become part of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, and Jefferts Schori has led an effort to sue departing parishes and dioceses, spending more than $22 million in the process, according to a 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal.

The lawsuits generally involved efforts by the national church to prevent departing parishes and dioceses to take the property with them. The outcomes were mixed.

"It is all about social justice right now," said David Virtue, a self-described orthodox Anglican who blogs on church matters. "[That's why] the Episcopal Church will be history in 25 years or less."

Jefferts Schori did not respond to requests for an interview for this article. And she has declined to comment on the Cook case, citing the confidentiality of an ongoing disciplinary investigation.

Previous controversy

Some critics say her decisions in the Cook case were foreshadowed by an earlier controversy, before she became presiding bishop of the national church.

In her previous position as bishop of the Diocese of Nevada, former Catholic priest Bede James Parry moved to the state and took a job as music director at an Episcopal church in Las Vegas.

Parry asked to be considered for reception as an Episcopal priest, a request that would have to go through Jefferts Schori.

When she interviewed him, Jefferts Schori has said, Parry said he had been barred from a Missouri monastery for sexually abusing a boy in 1987. She contacted each of his former employers, she has said, and made sure he underwent psychological testing.

She ordained him at a ceremony in 2004.

"[Parry] told me of being dismissed from the monastery … for a sexual encounter with an older teenager and indicated that it was a single incident of very poor judgment," she said in a later statement. "I made the decision to receive him, believing that he demonstrated repentance and amendment of life and that his current state did not represent a bar to his reception."

Seven years later, Parry's Missouri victim, by then an adult, sued the monastery, and reporters covering the story learned of allegations that he had molested other boys in the years before he moved to Nevada.

In a confessional statement issued in 2011, Parry said he told Catholic supervisors about four of the incidents and that three priests he'd worked with knew the details. He also said that a psychological exam he took while applying to join a Catholic monastery in California in 2000 determined he had "a proclivity to reoffend." Parry added, "After the testing, [the abbey leader] informed me I was no longer a candidate."

Jefferts Schori said she never turned up those facts.

Parry was a priest at All Saints through 2011, and officials there later said they had never been notified about his past. He died in 2013. No further accusations of pedophilia were leveled against him after he became an Episcopal priest.

Some who track the conduct of clergy see a troubling parallel between Jefferts Schori's decisions on Parry and Cook.

Among them is David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP, the nation's largest advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse.

"In both cases [she] has shown a fairly stunning degree of recklessness and deceit," said Clohessy, who studied and wrote about the Parry case. "I know that sounds harsh, but if she wants to ordain, or is willing to ordain, troubled clerics, she could at least be honest with members about their past difficulties. … She has flat-out failed to do that."

Cook's election

Questions also have been raised about the process the Diocese of Maryland used in selecting Cook as bishop suffragan, the organization's second-in-command.

A succession of committees in the 44,000-member Maryland diocese solicited nominees, ran background checks and winnowed the field from about 30 to four finalists. They were presented to the 304 lay and clergy members who attended a convention in Ellicott City last May.

Cook won on the fourth ballot, putting her in position to become the first female bishop in the diocese's 234-year history.

A search committee had learned from Cook early on, however, about her DUI on Sept. 10, 2010, in Caroline County. But committee members said they didn't research the matter further.

According to police records, Cook registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.27 , had two bags of marijuana in her car and was driving on an almost completely shredded tire. She received probation before judgment, meaning that the case would be expunged if she met conditions of her probation.

Committee members never saw the Caroline County Times article that covered details of the incident. They left it to Cook to tell electors about the DUI. She did so last January, but only in vague terms.

The electors never learned of the omission until after the death of bicyclist Thomas Palermo, whom Cook is accused of hitting while driving drunk.

She faces 13 criminal charges, including vehicular homicide, texting while driving and leaving the scene of an accident. The diocese has asked Cook to resign, but she has not responded to the request.

She's free on $2.5 million bail, but has not entered a plea; a court appearance scheduled for Thursday was postponed because of the snowstorm. Shortly after the crash, her attorney said she would seek treatment at a substance abuse center in Maryland.

Responsibility

Meanwhile, debate continues in church circles over how much responsibility the two parties — the Maryland diocese and the national church, personified by Jefferts Schori — should bear in Cook's ordination.

The question swirled last month when the diocese revealed that the head of the Maryland diocese, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, who dined with Cook, Jefferts Schori and others on Sept. 4, suspected that Cook was intoxicated that night.

He shared his concerns with Jefferts Schori the next morning, and that, spokesmen have said, ended the diocese's canonical responsibility.

Allan S. Haley, a California attorney who studies canon law, agrees — to a point. He cites a passage in Episcopal church law that reads: "In all particulars, the service at the ordination of a Bishop shall be under the direction of the Bishop presiding at the ordination."

Haley said Jefferts Schori could have stopped the consecration had she been so inclined.

But it's not that cut and dried, he adds.

Canon law can also be read as conferring authority on the diocesan bishop in such cases. That bishop has authority over any bishop-elect, he said, and church law empowers him to delay proceedings at any time in cases of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy."

"Bishop Sutton could have interpreted that to mean getting drunk at a pre-ordination dinner with the presiding bishop," said Haley, the author of a widely read blog on the church, The Anglican Curmudgeon.

National church officials have said the investigation into the Cook matter will include a review of the process by which she was chosen.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, leader of one of the church's two governing bodies, also vowed to press for reforms. She called for a review of how the church addresses addiction, including alcoholism. A task force working on a reassessment of governing structures is scheduled to present a report at the church's general convention in Salt Lake City this summer.

The church will elect a new presiding bishop at the gathering; he or she will be installed in the fall.

Conservatives hope the new leader returns to a more traditional scriptural standards. Others support greater inclusiveness. Many agree the church must come to terms with the past before setting a course for the next nine years.

Sutton, who apologized last month for failing to do a better job during the search, noted that Lent is a time to come to terms with our human failings.

"Repentance is a process, one involving a series of steps we must take before we're truly able to joyfully travel the path leading to glory," he wrote on the first day of Lent. "That first and essential step involves confessing to God and to others with these simple words — 'I'm sorry."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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