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