Episcopal bishop to deny he tried to shield former treasurer from prosecution


The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church will tell the nation's Episcopalians today that he never intended to shield from prosecution the church's former treasurer, who is accused of embezzling about $2.2 million.

The statement by the Most Rev. Edmond L. Browning will respond to "an outpouring of outrage from the grass roots" over what some have seen as a suggestion that charges would not be filed against Ellen Cooke, a church spokesman said.

In a detailed message to church leaders, released to the public May 1, Bishop Browning disclosed that Mrs. Cooke is accused of diverting funds of the financially hard-pressed denomination to her personal use over a period of five years. She was forced to resign.

Bishop Browning had said he had not decided whether to file a complaint with prosecutors.

"The presiding bishop will make it clear that he never meant to imply that prosecution of her would be avoided," James Solheim, director of the Office of News and Information at the church's headquarters in New York, said yesterday.

Some Episcopalians have contended that Bishop Browning did not exercise proper control over the treasurer's office and have called for his resignation.

One group of laity and clergy, Episcopalians United, has called for an independent probe of the treasurer's actions.

In Bishop Browning's original statement, there was no mention of any role the treasurer's husband, the Rev. Nicholas Cooke III, might have played in the embezzlement.

Father Cooke maintained he knew nothing about the alleged thefts by his wife even though accountants found that $90,000 had been wrongfully transferred to the Rector's Discretionary Fund at his former parish, St. Luke's in Montclair, N.J.

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark has begun an inquiry into finances at St. Luke's, Mr. Solheim said.

Although Father Cooke's present congregation in Northern Virginia initially indicated support for him and his wife, the priest announced Sunday that he would resign as rector of the prestigious, 1,400-member St. John's Episcopal Church in McLean, effective May 31.

According to the accountants' findings made public by Bishop Browning, Mrs. Cooke -- whose salary was $125,000 a year -- spent the $2.2 million on a farm in Lancaster, Va., a house in Montclair, N.J., private school tuition for her sons, and on items including jewelry, meals, and travel for herself, relatives and friends.

Mrs. Cooke is not under criminal investigation because the church has not made a formal complaint.

She and her husband promised restitution.

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