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Episcopal church to review how bishop now in jail was elected

Episcopal church investigation will include how Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook was selected, letter says.

National Episcopal officials will reassess the process by which the church elected a bishop now accused in the hit-and-run death of a prominent local bicyclist, the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland wrote in a letter to members Tuesday.

"A disciplinary process is underway to consider consequences for [Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook] as well as review the process that resulted in her election," Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton wrote in the letter posted online.

Sutton said the diocese continues to pray for the family of Thomas Palermo, the bicyclist killed in the accident Dec. 27, as well as for Cook "in this time of her tremendous grief and sorrow."

A spokeswoman for the diocese said the inquiry could result in Cook's defrocking.

Cook, 58, who was elected the Maryland diocese's first female bishop in May, is in jail in lieu of $2.5 million bail. She faces charges of manslaughter, driving under the influence, leaving an accident scene and texting while driving.

District Judge Nicole Pastore Klein rejected a request from Cook's attorneys Monday to lower her bail to $500,000, saying she couldn't trust Cook's judgment.

Klein suggested that the allegations against Cook show a "reckless and careless indifference to life."

Questions about how the church selected Cook arose when it was learned after the crash that she had been arrested for drunken driving in 2010, registering a 0.27 blood-alcohol level when pulled over on the Eastern Shore.

She pleaded guilty in the case, received probation and spent six months in an alcohol-rehabilitation program, according to court records.

Church officials say Cook disclosed the charges to a search committee. But they say delegates who voted in the election knew nothing of the charges.

Sutton has defended the decision to move Cook forward as a candidate after church officials learned of the 2010 charges. He said the church must practice forgiveness and offer second chances.

Diocesan spokeswoman Sharon Tillman said the review of Cook's election would be part of the larger disciplinary investigation the church is conducting under Title IV of its ecclesiastical code.

Title IV calls for a board of seven or more members — more than half of them priests or deacons — to conduct a comprehensive review of a case and recommend a penalty to a provincial board of review.

"As part of the investigation, they'll be interviewing all parties involved — not just people who took part in the election, but the people [Cook] worked with previously — to get a sense of the big picture," Tillman said.

The board of review will make the final decision on discipline.

There is no timetable for the investigation, Tillman said.

Sutton said in his letter that the church is in such pain over the developments surrounding the crash that "words barely express the depth of [its] shock and despair."

He cited Scripture and the words of theologians in an effort to encourage fellow Episcopalians.

Tillman acknowledged calls from some members of the public for Cook's ouster but said she didn't know how that might affect the investigation, if at all.

"I imagine they'll look at everything they can before making a decision," she said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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