Ethics Reminder To The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland And Bishop Cook: “Hit, Run, Realize You’re Screwed And Come Back 20 Minutes Later To Take Responsibility” Is Still “Hit And Run”


Yesterday, Heather Cook, the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo with her vehicle. He later died; she did not stop and drove on, leaving the scene and her victim  badly injured by the side of the road. Another motorist stopped and called 911, and cyclists who set out to find the fleeing car reported seeing a Subaru with a smashed windshield. twenty minutes after the fatal accident Cook returned while investigators were still on the scene.

In an email to the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton announced that Cook, the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Maryland diocese had been involved in a fatal accident, and said,

“Several news agencies have reported this as a ‘hit and run.’ Bishop Cook did leave the scene initially, but returned after about 20 minutes to take responsibility for her actions.”

Oh. Well, leaving a man to die on the road is all right, then.

I don’t know why I expect church officials to uphold ethical principles when one of their own engages in misconduct, but I do, perhaps because organized religion is supposed to good behavior for all. This was not a case where the driver wasn’t aware that her car had harmed someone: the windshield was shattered, which means the cyclist rolled up on the hood. The driver didn’t think, “Whoa! What was that? Oh, well, probably nothing.” She hit a human being, knew he was hurt, and fled the scene while he lay dying by the side of the road. The wrongful conduct—cowardly, cruel, irresponsible and thoroughly inexcusable—isn’t undone by returning after the driver realizes that she can’t get away with it.

[Full disclosure: I once left the scene of an accident. I fell asleep at the wheel as I prepared to take an exit off a highway, and woke up as my car bumped along on the grass by the guardrail. The air bag hadn’t deployed, but the car wouldn’t move: I called a tow truck, and my wife picked me up so we could take my son home from his school, which had been my destination. As we walked in the door after returning home, the phone rang. It was the police, informing me that I had left the scene of an accident resulting in damage to government property. I told the officer that I wasn’t aware of any damage to anything but my car, and that I was on the way to the scene. Sure enough, while I was snoozing away my car had taken out a big chunk out of of the guardrail at the turn-off. “Wow,” I told the officer. “That must have been some accident: I’m kind of sorry I missed it.” Both officers agreed that I had no legal obligation to stay on the scene if I believed that the only damage had been to my car. This is moral luck, by the way: I just as easily could have hit a derelict hanging out on the dividing strip, and could have been prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter. It was one heck of a way to learn that I couldn’t handle all-nighters (I had been cramming for an especially important ethics seminar) with three cups of coffee like I could when I was 25.]

It now appears that Bishop Cook has a history of driving while intoxicated. If there aren’t some bizarre circumstances that exonerate her, she will have to resign. God may be forgiving, and everyone deserves second chances, but a church leader—it doesn’t matter what church—can’t fail an ethics test this badly and retain any credibility, regardless of whether the law gives her a break or not.

She also failed to meet the special standard of conduct required of any trailblazer, which is, in essence, try to be above reproach and exemplary, while not doing anything that will give bigots ammunition to block future deserving candidates. Unfair though it is, all future female aspirants for bishop will be handicapped by Bishop Cook’s actions behind the wheel.


Pointer: Ann Althouse

Facts: Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Sun

26 thoughts on “Ethics Reminder To The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland And Bishop Cook: “Hit, Run, Realize You’re Screwed And Come Back 20 Minutes Later To Take Responsibility” Is Still “Hit And Run”

  1. I will not get into various theological squabbles about the Episcopal Church.

    You are right about this case.

    Then again, I remember , back in the 1990’s, cases of robbery and murder where the murderers deliberately rear ended their victims, who pulled over because of laws requiring them to stay at the scene of an accident. In tghat light, how should we view the general legal duty for people to stay at the scene of an accident?

  2. Why would you expect an official of the Episcopal Church — off-shoot of the Church of England — to be an ethics model? Any church founded just so Henry the VIII could get a divorce has ipso facto and severe ethical problems, in my opinion.

    • Any church that would allow openly gay priests and women priests at the risk of losing members has sever ethical problems. (That is sarcasm, by the way).

      • I grew up as a PK (“preacher’s kid”). Protestant, so marriages were not only allowed but encouraged. We lived in beautiful homes provided free of charge by the church, and, because of local laws (i.e., we couldn’t choose our residence) we kids were allowed to attend any school we chose, regardless of district. As a result, I went to the best schools in my jurisdiction (including a “demonstration school” where we had permanent chairs around the back of the room so diplomats could see American education at work).

        My Dad was a Ph,D. philosopher (from Boston University, at the time when all the great thinkers were at the time), when for no good reason I could never quite understand, he entered seminary and became a Protestant pastor as well. I grew up in the church. I don’t go to church. I don’t believe — never took that jump of faith — because I saw — first-hand and every day — the ugliness and hypocrisy of organized religion — and what happened to my Dad when he walked with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, took other political stances based on his beliefs, and paid the professional price.

        He ended up as a District Superintendent, one below a Bishop. and I recall a key conversation I had with him when I was a teenager. “Dad,” I said, “Why don’t you just play the game for a few more years and end up elected as a Bishop, so you can make the changes you want to make?” His answer, ingrained in my memory, was: “Because I’m terrified that if I play the game long enough toward that goal, I will have forgotten what I wanted to do in the first place.”

        An aside: one of his heroes was Bishop Oxnam. Called before the House Unamerican Committee in the 60s. and blew them out of the water. At another time, when a pastor was called to meet with him because he was caught sleeping with a married parishioner, the asshole pastor had the nerve to say it was part of his “ministry” to make this woman feel loved. My Dad was in the waiting room, and saw Bishop Oxnam literally pick up this jerk and physically throw him out of his office. The “pastor” was banned from the church. This took courage, and was against all current ways of dealing with such “employees,” but he did what he thought was right. Not protecting the church, you see, but protecting what it was supposed to stand for.

        In his later years there was a divide among my Dad and me — I am much more conservative than he was — and that’s a shame — but still I have good memories of the fact that he had the courage of his convictions — something so rare today.

      • ” Any church founded just so Henry the VIII could get a divorce has ipso facto and severe ethical problems, in my opinion.”

        Funny, that’s just what I’ve thought about the foundations of all organized religions.

  3. I’m sorry, but this goes beyond being allowed to resign. A second DUI after being warned (but no one injured) calls for being allowed to resign. Killing someone and leaving the scene of the accident requires more. She is a minister, she is a minister to the ministers. She has a higher standard to uphold. The church needs to send a message by dismissing and defrocking her. To allow her to resign, but remain ordained sends a message that this is behavior that is not allowed by one of the priesthood. Christianity has a problem. Society views it either as s collection of kooks and hypocrites, or as casual hobby. The church’s decision in this does nothing to dispel that perception. Rev. Sutton doesn’t help things with the deceptive spin, either.

    I am not of the camp that believes ministers have superhuman wisdom and moral perfection. However, I firmly believe that church leaders should be held to normal moral and ethical standards. They shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal. They should treat others fairly. They can have bad days and be wrong. This is not an unreasonable standard for someone in a position of moral leadership. Bishop Cook appears to have miserably failed this standard and should be held accountable. Unless the bicyclist just flew off the curb just before being hit and her car was surrounded by an angry mob (like the Detroit incident), there needs to be some real accountability.

      • Which “the Church”?

        I’ve seen you refer to “the Church” now, in 2 distinctly separate contexts… first the Catholic Church and now the Episcopalians. Even secularists should see the stark differences and lack of unity, regardless of whether or not they could be said to be unified in a transcendent spirituality.

        • “The Church” is whatever religious organization known as a church that is the topic of the post. It’s an alternative to spelling “Episcopalian”. I don’t understand the complaint. Nothing in the post or any such post extrapolates an issue like this to all “Churches.” Did anyone think this related to Catholics? Is the problem capitalization? Really? To me, the upper case churcjh is an organization, the lower case a single church, with one priest, minister, whatever. This involved a hierarchy. I’m sure I;ve screwed this up in the past, but this is a weird one to beef about it on.

          • I suppose I don’t recall the point I was getting to. Having just gotten the croupy toddler back to sleep and helped the wifey get the infant back to sleep, I shouldn’t have spent my waning moments of early morning adrenaline engaging in internet discussions.

    • I agree with Michael R. She can’t continue in her ministry at all, let alone her position of authority. Religious institutions can be compassionate toward their leaders who make mistakes, even to those who commit heinous crimes. That does not, however, absolve them from taking such actions as would make it clear to all that they will not tolerate nor continue to employ leaders who do these things. Some “mistakes” maybe do not require dismissal and/or defrocking. Some certainly do.

      So much wrong with this whole scenario. What about the DUI? Shouldn’t that have put her on some kind of episcopal radar? The Catholic Church, with all of its pedophilia and embezzlement problems, has become so hyper-vigilant that you can’t touch anyone for fear of sexual harassment charges. Makes it kinda difficult to comfort those who need it. But the safety of every person trumps other considerations. Unfortunately, our own sins have come home to roost and foul the coop.

      In an interesting coincidence, yesterday was the feast day of St. Thomas à Becket, whose dispute with his former friend, King Henry II, had to do with Henry’s wish to have clergy tried by the court rather than just by the Church’s authorities. Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, would not permit this, insisting that the court had no authority over the clergy. As anyone who has seen the wonderful movie “Becket” knows, Henry lost it and ranted to his knights “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” So, they did, making Thomas a martyr and a saint, and Henry had to make amends in the court of public opinion by hanging out at Becket’s tomb and suffering the lash. This, of course, was not yet the Church of England but the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

    • See my several responses above. She is a felon, regardless of position, and should be treated as such. No “grace” allowed for a church official, with previous DUIs, who KILLED an innocent biker and then ran. This will be a real test of the Episcopal Church — where does morality start and stop? What would happen if she was CEO of General Motors? Jail,kiddo, Period.

      • What would happen if she was CEO of General Motors? Jail,kiddo, Period.

        I find your naivety touching.

        I think you’re a better person than I am.

  4. Anything less than defrocking, dismissal and the full weight of the law is unthinkable. Any religion worthy of the name would want a vigorous investigation and full disclosure. Forgiveness is required, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Consequences are part of the process of repentance. Responsible religious people should demand it.

  5. “Forgiveness is required, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Consequences are part of the process of repentance.”
    How correct, and oh how so conveniently forgotten by so many “religious people” today!

  6. “I don’t know why I expect church officials to uphold ethical principles when one of their own engages in misconduct, but I do, perhaps because organized religion is supposed to good behavior for all.”

    Your first mistake is accusing Episcopalians of being in an organized religion.

    “It now appears that Bishop Cook has a history of driving while intoxicated.”

    They are called Whiskypalians for a reason…

    • “Whiskeypalians?” What a hoot! But in this case, not really funny. As stated earlier, any organized religious sect that was created just so Henry the VIII could get a divorce — thus leaving the Roman church — must have some ongoing and built-in ethics questions they have refused to address for centuries. So “whiskeypalians’ they are — and perhaps with good reason — but murder with a history of DUIs is not funny. Lock ’em all up.

  7. This is exactly the sort of thing that has all but destroyed the Church of England and led so many churches of the Anglican Communion to break away. They’ve become a leftist political group, thinly disguised as a Christian denomination. By their deeds ye shall know them.

      • Way to dumb it down. It’s really not that simplistic.
        “The beginning of the sixteenth century showed significant discontent with the Roman church. Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the church in Wittenburg in 1517, and news of this challenge had certainly reached England when, 20 years later, the Anglican branch of the church formally challenged the authority of Rome. Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and abbeys in 1536.

        There is a public perception, especially in the United States, that Henry VIII created the Anglican church in anger over the Pope’s refusal to grant his divorce, but the historical record indicates that Henry spent most of his reign challenging the authority of Rome, and that the divorce issue was just one of a series of acts that collectively split the English church from the Roman church in much the same way that the Orthodox church had split off five hundred years before.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.