Maryland bishop charged in DUI death is defrocked by Episcopal Church

Heather Cook, photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service
Heather Cook, photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service

Heather Cook, photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) An Episcopal bishop in Maryland who’s facing manslaughter charges in the drunk-driving death of a bicyclist has been defrocked and “will no longer function as an ordained person in the Episcopal Church.”

Heather Cook was a suffragan (assistant) bishop in the Diocese of Maryland when she was charged with manslaughter in the Dec. 27 hit-and-run death of cyclist Tom Palermo, a 41-year-old husband and father of two, in Baltimore. Within a month of the accident, the diocese that she had helped lead for just three months asked her to resign.

Cook, who is free on bail and seeking treatment for alcoholism, faces 13 charges including drunken driving, leaving the scene of an accident and causing an accident due to texting while driving.

Cook left the crash scene and returned about 30 minutes later, according to court documents. A breath test showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.22, almost three times Maryland’s 0.08 limit.

On Friday (May 1), Episcopal Church headquarters in New York issued a brief statement saying that Cook had reached a mutual “accord” with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that will leave her “deposed,” or stripped of her ordination as a priest and bishop.

The statement said the punishment takes effect “immediately.”

In February, Jefferts Schori had suspended Cook from the ministry, directing her not to present “yourself out as an ordained person of this Church in good standing.” Her diocese also asked her to resign.

Also on Friday, the Baltimore-based diocese said it had accepted Cook’s resignation, independent of her agreement with the national church. “This means that Cook is no longer employed by the diocese,” the brief statement from Bishop Eugene Sutton and lay leaders said.

The agreement deprives her “of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority of God’s word and sacraments conferred at ordination,” according to the statement.

The statement said the agreement resolves all pending disciplinary cases against Cook with the national church, but does not resolve her criminal charges, or any “employment matters” with her former diocese.

Friday’s statement did not specify which church law Cook had violated, but in February Jefferts Schori cited “alleged criminal conduct in connection with an automobile accident on December 27, 2014 and misrepresentations” about Cook’s history with alcohol during her election as bishop.

According to church law, Episcopal clergy can face discipline for “any criminal act that reflects adversely on the Member of the Clergy’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a minister of the Church” as well as “any Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Clergy.”

Cook’s case has deeply troubled many within the Episcopal Church — prompting questions about alcohol abuse within the clergy, the church’s sometimes easy access to alcohol, how long church leaders knew of her illness and whether the delegates who elected her in September were informed.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, one of two main governing bodies of the 2 million-member denomination, appointed a committee to review the church’s 1985 policies on alcohol and drug abuse and to propose new resolutions to be considered at the church’s General Convention, in Salt Lake City from June 25 to July 3.


About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.


Click here to post a comment

  • BQRQ, I think your comment is totally uncalled-for in this tragic situation. Many lives have been ruined because of this event, and simply as a human being you should show more compassion for all involved rather than making a snarky political comment. Shame on you!

  • Cynthia
    Do you have any idea how much conservative Christians hate liberal Christianity? Long ago I belonged to the Episcopal Church, and I was told by conservatives that it is a communist organization. No, I am not making that up.

  • bqrq,
    I’m not quite convinced Holy Scripture has given you the authority to pass judgement on anyone.

  • Clearly a situation in which there are no winners, if I may use such a trite and cliche’ expression. While she has not yet been tried the evidence against her seems solid. I would have been much more impressed by her as a bishop and a Christian (if guilty) had she owned her responsibility. Parenthetically, a Christian who knows their own guilt, in order to honor God, should never hide behind the 5th Amendment.

  • Just so you know, The Episcopal Church never “defrocks” anyone. Rather, we “depose”. You may want to inform your Headline Editor.

  • Cynthia, the political aspect of this situation has been brought on by the Episcopal Church itself, which departed long ago from the teachings of Christ, and has instead embraced the world (1John 2:15).

  • There are alcoholics in every denomination of every religion. This isn’t unique to Episcopalians.

  • Thank you for this dose of common sense. Alcoholism, or sin, in general, isn’t limited to TEC.

    Also, to the editor, she was deposed; not defrocked.

  • Priests who raped little boys and destroyed countless lives were protected by Churches – and they still are!
    24,000 cases of rape by priests – and those are just the ones we know about!

    Yet how many priests lost their jobs? HARDLY ANY!

    At least this group has some standards!

  • The only reason the pedophilia issue within the Episcopal Church has not been understood, is not because they don’t have it, but that they don’t report it.

  • bqrq,

    Many more people have been hurt or committed suicide by narrow minded, hate filled religiously based bigotry. Try reading Matthew 25 and get a grip on what it really means to follow Christ.

  • Wow! if this scandal had been around a Catholic bishop there would have been a thousand times more screaming headline coverage than the miniscule attention this story has gained. But it is taking place in the media’s most favored church so low keying it seems to be the order of the day

  • That’s simply not true at all! The Gospel is preached, and the tenets of the faith are upheld, but you are angry, rather, because hate — the kind on which you thrive, has been cast out. The Episcopal Church is a Gospel-filled and beautiful CHURCH of the LIVING GOD.

  • Greg, throw in a Bible verse to back you up — but really, not one single verse of the Bible brings salvation, but instead, the entire breath of God in the Holy Scriptures. The Episcopal Church preaches Christ — crucified, resurrected and coming again. You should get your facts straight, but then again you have exchanged the Gospel for the worship of the Bible.

  • Cranner, If I ripped out half of the New Testament, and handed it to you, saying, “here, this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, follow it and be saved,” you would tell me that I am brain dead, and rightly so. Well that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to the Episcopalians (2Tim 4:3-4).

  • I have been an Episcopalian for six years now. I am a seminary graduate. The
    Episcopal church is an “all inclusive” church and accepts everyone. Yes we
    have female clergy and gays also. Yes the church is very “Roman” in it’s
    structure and out look. I am a Protestant but I can exist within the Episcopal
    church and it’s structure. I cannot imagine Christ not including with in His
    circle of believers the gays and women in important “positions” in what is now
    considered the Christian churches. Churches sin, and the SIN here is that the
    Episcopal church knowingly allowed this Bishop to continue in her “drunken”
    ministry. We were wrong and we sinned in not doing what we preach in it’s
    fullist sense. We need to acknowledge this and be more careful in the furture.

  • The Living God appears to be nothing but The Living Brain deciding there is a God inside it – a god which makes demands on other brains.

    Silly nonsense.

  • There are NO alcoholics within the ranks of the Catholic clergy. They are ontologically protected by an invisible Gardol shield.

    It’s in the CCC.

  • Yep, the main fault is she is a bishop with the Episcopal Church and nothing else. Because she is of a sect that you don’t like, anything she does is automatically sending her to hell.

    Christians can’t even play nice with other Christians. Of course fundies always like to take credit for the work of members other Christian sects (whom they despise) when they want to look more important than reality permits.

  • Bigger Church– bigger headlines????? I suppose that accounts for all the headline stories, front page stories, in-depth cheering, and fawning columns the tiny Episcopal church gets whenever it does something the liberal media loves.

  • “Cranner, If I ripped out half of the New Testament, and handed it to you, saying, “here, this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, follow it and be saved,””

    Except you would be correct.

    Half of the New Testament is letters from Paul. A man who never met Jesus in life nor had anything to say about the man in the first hand.

    What is the point of being a “completest” if you miss the point entirely?

  • I say, snark away. Think how many knew all about her. Why, she drove those 2 girls drunk back in 1988. She’s been at it a long time and no one cared enough to make sure she got into rehab. It’s a little late now to take the pledge.