Episcopal Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton said he could have grabbed the mike at the consecration of Heather Cook last September and declared, “I, the bishop of Maryland, say no” based on his suspicions of her alcohol abuse, but his actions would have caused an uproar.
“There would have been howls in this diocese and around the church and around the world,” he said at a public forum at St. James’ Church in Lothian last night.
His statements give the most complete account so far of his – and the national Episcopal leadership’s – knowledge of Cook’s alcoholism between her consecration as Bishop Suffragan of Maryland last September 6 and the December 27 death of bicyclist Tom Palermo at the hands of a highly intoxicated Cook.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, took charge of what Sutton said he believed to be an intervention on behalf of Cook after the September consecration.
What Did the National Church Do?
“It was in the presiding bishop’s hands,” he said last night. “I made a follow-up call to say, ‘Has that begun?’ and the presiding bishop did say, ‘Yes.’”
He added, in reference to the actions of the national church, “We don’t know what was set up for her. It is entirely possible that Heather Cook was in a 12-step program in Baltimore [at the time of her crash with Palermo]. Entirely possible.”
Prior to last night’s statement, Sutton said that the local diocese had no knowledge of Cook’s ongoing alcoholism and had been assured during last year vetting process of her candidacy that her 2010 DUI was a one-time problem – “somebody who had a bad night, made a bad decision and learned from it,” Sutton said last night.
Neva Rae Fox, Jefferts Schori’s spokesperson in New York, declined today to say whether Cook was under any church-required treatment program and what steps, if any, the national office took to get her help before the fatal December 27 crash.
“I was not at the forum so I am not aware of what Bishop Sutton said,” she said, not responding to any e-mailed questions.
Sutton said he got to know Cook over the summer before her consecration. “Having worked with her for a couple of months,” he said he suspected she was drunk at a private dinner given two days before her scheduled ordination.
“At that moment something clicked. There was this, and there was her DUI in 2010,” he said, referring to her arrest for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia as well as drunk driving in Caroline County, Md.
He said he did the “only thing I could do, canonically” – he shared his suspicions with Bishop Jefferts Schori, who had also attended the private dinner party with her husband.
“Clearly the presiding bishop agreed with my assessment that. . . we want to make sure that this is nipped in the bud before it becomes a problem,” Sutton said last night.
A Lavish Ceremony
But by all accounts, Heather Cook’s suspected alcoholism was not mentioned on September 6 when 10 bishops and nearly 1,000 worshippers participated at her ordination at the Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore.
During the lavish ceremony, Bishop Jefferts Schori spoke out the words: “If any of you know of any reason why we should not proceed, let it now be made known.”
With no objections made, Jefferts Schori then announced it was the will of the people for Cook to be made bishop. Sutton followed later with an official welcome to the new bishop.
Reflecting on the ordination, Sutton said last night that stopping the ceremony would not have been the right approach. “No, you got to work with that person. And especially in light of this whole election and no [prior] evidence of alcohol abuse for four years.”
After Cook officially took up her position in diocesan headquarters in September – separated from Sutton’s office only by an open reception area – Sutton said he did not offer her pastoral care or apparently broach the topic of alcohol or treatment options.
“It’s thought that the best thing to do is to have the presiding bishop be in charge of that because, guess what, we have a history of problems between bishops diocesan and suffragan bishops, and it can ruin a work relationship and a whole diocese can suffer.”
According to a timeline posted by the Maryland Diocese, Cook had a meeting with Bishop F. Clayton Matthews, head of the office of pastoral development, in October.
Whether that meeting was related to Cook’s alcoholism, or any 12-step or other treatment program she may have entered, is unknown because the national church says the matter is confidential and part of its Title IV disciplinary investigation of Cook.
Sutton pointed out that Jefferts Schori has placed restrictions on Cook – who having posted $2.5 million bail for multiple felony charges in connection with Palermo’s death is staying at a Harford County addiction treatment center – as part of the church’s Title IV process.
Jefferts Schori has accused Cook of making “misrepresentations” to the Easton diocese and in connection with her candidacy for bishop suffragan of Maryland.
“That’s a big word that means something,” Sutton said last night. “Misrepresentations to the Diocese of Easton and misrepresentations to the Diocese of Maryland about her experience with alcohol. What it says to me is that there were some things that our sister Heather made sure that some did not know, either by commission or omission.”
He continued: “She had only stellar recommendations with no hint of any trouble, not a hint, other than that 2010 DUI, and we didn’t have all the information.”
Pausing, Sutton told the audience that he wished he knew as much last year as he does now about alcoholism and how alcoholics can hide their disease. “I just wish antenna had gone up, and it just didn’t.”