Once a rising star in the Episcopal Church, Heather Cook hoped to spend her life lessening people’s pain.
Instead, months after she was consecrated the first woman bishop in the Diocese of Maryland in 2014, she was behind the wheel, texting, driving drunk and causing an accident that killed a bicyclist on a Baltimore road.
“Part of the great challenge for me is to know that I, through this experience, have added more pain to the world,” said Cook in one of a series of phone interviews from prison before her release this week (May 14).
Technically, Cook has done her time.
But the former inmate now has a life sentence: determining if redemption might ever be possible after such a tragedy.
Two days after Christmas, she struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo, a husband and father of two. She initially left the scene of the accident but was later arrested. Authorities said her blood alcohol level was .22, almost three times the legal limit.
She was convicted of vehicular manslaughter, DUI, leaving the scene of an accident and driving while texting and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Cook was defrocked by the Episcopal Church and is no longer a priest or a bishop. Instead, for the past three and a half years, she’s been inmate number 00442452 at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.
She hopes to spend her life making amends for what she did.
Cook, 62, agreed to talk with Religion News Service on the condition that this story would not be published until her release from prison.
She described her willingness to be interviewed as “part of my amends” — a word used in the ninth step of the 12-step recovery process.
The former bishop told RNS she did not know at the time of her accident that she had struck a person. Though she declined to discuss more of what happened that day, she does recall texting “we are on our way,” referring to herself and her golden retriever, Teddy, before the collision.
She said she has repented for the DUI accident and the loss of Palermo’s life.
“Repentance is two things, at least,” she said. “Repentance is a feeling and repentance is also amendment of life. In the beginning, I was absolutely overwhelmed with shame and grief and hopelessness at what had happened that I’d been responsible for.”
Palermo’s family opposed her requests to leave prison early as well as the length of her prison sentence, saying she had not been given enough time for her crimes.
“While no amount of prison time would seem sufficient, we feel the court today could have sent a stronger signal that our community takes driving while under the influence and driving while distracted seriously,” said Alisa Rock, a sister-in-law of Palermo, speaking for the family after Cook’s sentencing. “It feels lukewarm.”
The Palermo family, through its attorney, declined to comment for this story.
Her fellow Episcopalians have mixed feelings about Cook. There is anger over her crimes and a feeling that she was an embarrassment. She’s also forced the denomination to rethink its often cozy relationship with alcohol that caused some members to call themselves “Whiskeypalians.”
A commission set up after Cook’s arrest found that the Episcopal Church often failed to intervene with clergy who struggled with alcoholism.
“In many instances, devoid of expectations for substantive recovery and amendment of life, the desire to forgive has undermined the church’s collective responsibility to due diligence in the work of screening, recognizing, and diagnosing impairment in church leaders, as well as intervening and treating when appropriate,” a denominational report found.
After her arrest in 2014, it was revealed that four years earlier, Cook had been stopped for drunken driving on the state’s Eastern Shore. Some diocesan members said information about the initial incident was not disclosed when Cook was elected as suffragan, or deputy, bishop.
Bishop Todd Ousley, who heads the Episcopal Church office tasked with responding to its Commission on Impairment and Leadership’s 2017 recommendations, has known Cook for more than a decade. He once served with her on a church committee on congregations in small communities.
He described Cook as “a very gifted priest” with the “potential to be a very gifted bishop but also someone who had a dark side to her.”
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Source: Religion News Service