With Bishop Heather Cook in a Baltimore jail cell on charges of manslaughter, drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident, the man who presided during her hiring says he didn’t realize how burdened he was by the incident until “a bishop colleague” spoke with him.
Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton – Cook’s Episcopal Diocese of Maryland boss, who has acknowledged diocesan officials knew about Cook’s 2010 drunk driving and drug arrest but did not disclose it to the people who elected her – recounted the colleague’s words of solace in a “pastoral letter” published today.
“Eugene, I am the child of an alcoholic and I’ve spent many years dealing with that and coming to understand the hold that alcohol has on someone who is addicted to it,” the colleague said, according to Sutton’s account.
“I want to tell you that the Diocese of Maryland is not responsible for the terrible accident that killed that bicyclist,” the colleague said, according to Sutton’s letter. “You are not responsible for that; Heather Cook is. It’s not your fault.”
Sutton goes on to say the colleague’s words prompted him to “burst into tears.”
“I hadn’t realized how much I had internalized the weight of responsibility for the tragedy, the sense of shame, and the desperate need to make it all better,” Sutton wrote in a letter posted on his Facebook page as well as on the website of Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
Praying for Sister Heather
Sutton’s letter appears a day after a judge refused to lower the $2.5 million bail for Cook, apparently ensuring that the 58-year-old Bishop Suffragan – basically the No. 2 official in the diocese – will remain in the Baltimore Detention Center with grave charges pending as a result of the December 27 crash that claimed the life of bicyclist Thomas Palermo.
Cook is charged with manslaughter for allegedly driving drunk, texting and striking Palermo on a North Baltimore road as he biked in a marked bike lane. She is also accused of leaving the scene of the crash, among other charges.
With the criminal case moving forward, Sutton was addressing the questions that have swirled around the diocese and his office – namely, how someone with Cook’s drunk driving arrest and apparent longstanding alcohol problem could have risen to such a position.
“We continue to pray for our sister Heather in this time of her tremendous grief and sorrow, knowing the Episcopal Church’s ‘Title IV’ disciplinary process is underway to consider consequences for her actions as well as review the process that resulted in her election,” Sutton wrote.
Sutton’s letter focuses on striking notes of self-examination and reflection – and offered “five important learnings” that became clear to him after talking to colleagues and “a spiritual guide.”
“Lord, It’s Not Your Fault”
He counsels readers of the letter to think before they act. “In a time of great upheaval, things said, decided upon and done in haste are rarely the most helpful over the long run,” he notes.
Not to be defensive is also recommended, with the bishop writing that “being vulnerable is better than being defensive.” He includes quotes from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians and from the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
But the areas where Sutton addresses his personal feelings of culpability – and seemingly absolves himself – are also striking.
“I hadn’t realized how much I had internalized the weight of responsibility for the tragedy, the sense of shame, and the desperate need to make it all better,” he writes.
“Later, praying before the Icon of Christ the Pantocrater, I gazed into those piercing eyes of our Lord, asking: What is Christ wanting to say to me? And what did I want to say to him?”
“After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to gaze into his eyes and say: ‘Lord, it’s not your fault,’” he recounts.