Episcopal leader suspected Cook was drunk days before installation as bishop

Episcopal leader suspected Cook was drunk days before installation as bishop

The leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland suspected that the Rev. Heather Elizabeth Cook — now facing drunken driving and manslaughter charges in the December death of a local bicyclist — was intoxicated at a dinner two days before she was installed as bishop last year, according to the diocese.

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, head of the Maryland diocese, quickly shared his concerns about Cook's behavior that night with the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the diocese said in a timeline posted on its website this week.

"Bishop Sutton suspects that Cook is inebriated during pre-consecration dinner and conveys concern to Presiding Bishop," it reads. "Presiding Bishop indicates she will discuss with Cook."

The timeline does not say whether Schori in fact talked to Cook — who church officials were aware had been arrested four years earlier on a charge of driving under the influence.

Two days after the dinner, Schori presided at the Sept. 6 ceremony at which Cook was consecrated as a bishop.

Cook, 58, is free on $2.5 million bail, awaiting trial on charges in the death Dec. 27 of Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old software engineer and father of two young children, as he rode his bicycle on Roland Avenue in North Baltimore. She is accused of driving drunk and texting at the time of the collision and with leaving the scene of the accident.

The case has made international headlines and raised questions about how the church elected Cook to the position of No. 2 bishop in the Maryland diocese even after the 2010 DUI charge.

The national Episcopal Church has declined to comment on the case, citing its ongoing investigation. Sutton also has declined to comment beyond the online timeline and other diocesan communications. The diocese has asked Cook to resign.

Her attorney, David Irwin, declined to comment for this article.

Of the revelations in the timeline, crisis managers and others following the case said the diocese was wise to be open with the details. But they were concerned it did so this late in the process.

"I'm glad they shared this chapter of the story, since I believe the diocese's first responsibility is to be honest, but I'm alarmed that new pieces of information keep coming out. I wish this kind of thing might have been said at the beginning," said Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, former bishop of the Maryland diocese and a critic of the church's handling of the case.

Ihloff, now interim rector at the Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, said it's heart-breaking that both the diocese and the Episcopal Church appear to have had two days in which to consider "putting the brakes" on the process of consecrating Cook but did not.

There's precedent, he said. In 2000, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta canceled the consecration of the Rev. Robert Trache as its ninth bishop less than two weeks before it was to occur.

That diocese's standing committee cited "very recent discoveries of a lack of disclosure in personal financial and family matters," it said in a statement. "The … committee is no longer confident in Trache's ability to function as bishop of Atlanta."

He was never consecrated.

Sutton and Schori were among those who took Cook to a Baltimore restaurant as a gesture of welcome last Sept. 4, according to Sharon Tillman, a diocesan spokeswoman. Sutton became concerned about Cook's behavior that night, the timeline says, and shared his thoughts with Schori.

Diocesan officials have said the search committee that vetted Cook knew about the DUI charge, but they left it up to Cook to disclose the incident to the church members who would vote on her candidacy.

Church officials have said she did so only in vague terms, alluding to a "difficult period" in her life.

The timeline entry is the first indication that diocesan officials may have seen Cook intoxicated. The entrygoes on to say that a national church official, BishopClay Matthews, met with Cook in October, but that details of the meeting are confidential because they're part of an ongoing church investigation.

Tillman said no one from the Maryland diocese shared Sutton's concerns directly with Cook; once Sutton had reported his suspicions to Schori, the matter was the responsibility of the church's national governing body, Tillman said.

The diocese had performed its due diligence in electing Cook, Tillman said, which left any concerns about her behavior in the jurisdiction of the national church.

"[Sutton] did exactly what was required and expected of him according to the Episcopal Church," Tillman said.

The Maryland diocese didn't share information about the dinner earlier because it was trying to ensure the accuracy of the facts, she said.

Thediocese is trying to be transparent with the information it has, Tillman said, adding that the diocese "has had no access to anything having to do with the [church's] investigation" — a process that could take months to complete.

"What is posted in the timeline are the facts as we know them," she said. "How they relate to the full story is what we don't know."

Students of crisis management agree the diocese acted wisely in sharing the details of that night, though some said it would have been wiser to do so earlier.

"Crisis managers believe that if there's negative information that is going to come out at some point – and in this age of the Internet and social media, it's going to come out — you're better off releasing it yourself, taking a stab at positioning it rather than waiting and letting it be positioned for you," said Jonathan Bernstein, CEO of the California-based firm Bernstein Crisis Management.

The court of public opinion can be more damaging to an organization than anything that happens in a courtroom, Bernstein said, and many in his field have "gone to school on" the Roman Catholic Church, which was widely perceived as being less than forthcoming during its widely publicized sex-abuse scandals.

"I'm sure they're concerned about legal ramifications, but what they're also thinking about is their primary stakeholders," he said. "They want their parishioners to know they're not going to hide, to know that, yes, they make mistakes, but when they make them and realize it, they turn around and do the right thing. Honesty and humility go a long, long way toward surviving a crisis."

Louise Schiavone, a senior lecturer in business communication and leadership ethics at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business, said that while the diocese is facing an enormously complex set of challenges, it has made a mistake by letting the facts leak out a little at a time.

"I tell my students that champion organizations handle a crisis by telling the truth, the whole truth, as much as you possibly know, and to put it out there as firmly and quickly as you possibly can," she said. "The longer you string out bad information, the more damaging the story is to an organization or individual."

Ihloff said that most people in the Maryland diocese simply want to see honesty prevail in a case that is otherwise bitterly unhappy for all concerned.

"That's one of the few things we have left in a story that is otherwise completely tragic," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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