Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Good Clergy Starts and Ends With Good Human Beings

I was saddened to read this news story in the Washington Post about an Episcopal bishop in Maryland who hit and killed a cyclist in Baltimore last weekend. Part of the title of an associated story really hit home for me: "Who's qualified to be clergy?"

With the understanding that we only have what's been reported in the media so far to go on, here's what we know about the driver of the automobile, Rev. Heather Elizabeth Cook, the 2nd in command or "suffragan" of the Episcopal Church in Maryland. 

  • Rev. Cook was arrested in 2010 for DUI while assigned to Maryland's Eastern Shore. According to reports, she was so drunk she couldn't even complete field sobriety tests and had thrown up on herself when pulled over driving a car that was rolling on three wheels and one tire rim. She admitted drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana before getting behind the wheel. Her blood alcohol was .27, three times MD's .08 limit. (I remember learning in school that .25 is the point at which people become unconscious from drinking, so she must have been extremely impaired!) . She received "probation before judgment" and completed her probation. 
  • She was placed on the short list for suffragan with four other women. While church leaders were aware of the 2010 incident, the larger group voting to install her as a bishop were unaware of it. Ultimately, she was selected this past spring after undergoing a psychological evaluation and background check. 
  • Rev. Cook struck cyclist Thomas Palermo, 41, and left the scene, only to return "20 minutes" later. Unconfirmed reports on cyclist Web sites say that the only reason Cook returned to the scene was because she was being chased by cyclists. Palermo died. 
  • Cook was placed on administrative leave, and the Diocese admits that she was involved in the accident, but no charges have been filed at this time. There is no mention of alcohol or drug involvement in this crash. 
This is a tough one. It's very easy to say "They never should have picked her for the job with her DUI," but I'm not sure that's realistic. Should that one mistake ensure that you rise no higher in your profession, despite your excellent qualifications? DUI is nothing to be trifled with. But Rev. Cook admitted her guilt and received punishment, whether you agree that it was too lenient or not. 

I will say, however, that there should have been full disclosure about her previous arrest so people could judge her fairly. Now it looks like the church was hiding something when likely they didn't mean to, but if I had been part of the convention that voted for the suffragan position, I'd ask what prompted church leaders to omit those details. Press reports indicate the leaders determined that "this one mistake shouldn't bar her as leader", but you do a disservice to your flock by not being up front about it.

Every person is different and every case is different. Based on what I've read, if I had been told about her arrest I don't think I'd have voted for her if other candidates were just as qualified. With that said, I don't think that the arrest alone should have prevented her from helping lead her church. We are all humans and have lapses in judgment, and unless there was a greater pattern of alcohol or drug abuse that the church discovered about Rev. Cook and did nothing to remedy, I don't think a reasonable person could have expected this.

What bothered me more than anything in this case was the apparent lack of compassion on the bishop's part. As I've said many times, spiritual leaders should be held to a higher standard, but to me, to just leave someone there dying after you hit them without trying to help is completely unconscionable. That's not even basic human decency, much less what we expect of a spiritual leader. It takes on an even greater significance when this person is not just any leader, but the #2 in the church in Maryland. What does it look like then?

My Scorpio senses are really heightened on this one. Why would you choose to leave a person there when you didn't know how injured they were, and with a heavily damaged windshield, as it said in the report? I'd expect a spiritual leader to stop and do everything they could to help that person, whether they were the one who hit them or not. She should have been on the phone to 911 immediately to get EMS rolling, even if it appeared the cyclist had suffered fatal injuries. (Full disclosure: I don't know that she didn't call 911; that wasn't included in the report, but I'd have thought if she had done something the Post would have included it.)

You know what? That last paragraph was incorrect. The third sentence should have read, "I'd expect any decent human being to stop and do everything they could to help that person." Hell, these days we all have cell phones and we routinely call in traffic accidents and aggressive drivers. Even people who don't normally call in accidents and other road incidents likely would have been moved to see a cyclist on the ground in need of medical treatment to call 911 or get out and see if the person was OK.

I'll be very interested to see what happens. I'll take a moment to repeat that we don't have the whole story on this one, but if it turns out that Rev. Cook hit this cyclist and left the scene without intervening in some way, she should go to jail for vehicular manslaughter and be removed from her position. If evidence comes to light that she was somehow impaired, the book needs to be thrown at her.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Thomas Palermo's family, especially his wife and two young children, as well as to Rev. Cook and the Episcopal Church of MD. This is an ugly situation and only with a strong faith and a desire to heal will they get through it.

As you go out this New Years' Eve, please party responsibly and be aware and safe. You don't want to be the next statistic. And let's be honest...I don't want to lose any readers. :)

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