Pastoral Letter from the Bishop of Maryland on the Heather Cook affair

Heather Cook, not the diocese, bears the guilt of her actions, bishop told by his colleagues

January 13, 2015

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Diocese of Maryland is in deep pain. Words barely express the depth of our shock and despair over the events and revelations of the past two weeks in the aftermath of the tragic collision involving Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, which resulted in the death of a cyclist, Thomas Palermo, on Saturday, December 27. She is now in jail, facing charges of manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident resulting in a death, driving under the influence of alcohol, and texting while driving.

There are still too many questions for which there are no easy answers, and we are filled with anger, bitterness, pain and tears. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Palermo family in their bereavement and for ourselves as a diocese in mourning. And 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.

But what now? What do we do with our grief?

I want to share with you five important learnings that are helping me through this time. They became clear to me after recently consulting a spiritual guide and trusted bishop colleagues:

1.       We make wiser decisions after a dedicated time of prayer and solitude. Thoughts take time to develop. In a time of great upheaval, things said, decided upon, and done in haste are rarely the most helpful over the long run.

2.       Being vulnerable is better than being defensive. In a supportive and eucharistically-grounded community, we can speak the truth in love to one another, confess that we don’t have all the answers, and hear what the Spirit is saying through all of us. We learn not to judge one another (in the sense of “condemnation”). The diocese is the Body of Christ in community and in action. As one spiritual writer has said “Divine closeness is the secret of human vulnerability. We are not vulnerable simply because we are childlike adults in an imperfect world. We are vulnerable because we carry in us a deep strain of God’s caring.”1

3.       Trust that the Spirit will provide everything that we need. God has not abandoned us; we are not alone in this moment. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Comforter.

4.       Spend some time with French Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s meditation “Trust in the Slow Work of God” (see below). It reminds us to have patience and not feel that we can simply fix problems on our own.

5.       After discussing this tragedy with some of my bishop colleagues for over an hour and being held up in prayer by them, one said, “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. I want to tell you that the Diocese of Maryland is not responsible for the terrible accident that killed that bicyclist. You are not responsible for that; Heather Cook is. It’s not your fault.” I 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. 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.”

My sisters and brothers, we will get through this. We will shed tears, suffer together, explore what we could have done better and learn to accept what we couldn’t have done better. We will pick ourselves up and go on with our ministries in our churches and our mission in the world, including finding ways to support the cycling community and address the problem of addiction in our culture and in our Church.

I had the great joy of ordaining three new deacons on January 11. In the midst of our mourning as a diocese, we had a real celebration! The epistle lesson was from the 4th chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, and it could not have been more appropriate for the Diocese of Maryland right now. It begins with these two verses:

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. (II Corinthians 4:1-2)

I call upon us to meditate on these verses of scripture and indeed all of that fourth chapter in the days and months ahead. In the meantime, please attend any of the four public forums if you wish where I will be present to address questions and concerns:

·         Jan 13 Cathedral of the Incarnation, Baltimore 7-8:30 pm

·         Jan 15 Church of the Holy Comforter, Lutherville 7-8:30 pm

·         Jan 17 St. John’s Parish, Hagerstown 10-11:30 am

·         Jan 21 St. James’ Parish, Lothian 7-8:30 pm

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessings of God Almighty, the Father, the Sons, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you forever. Amen.

Faithfully yours
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton
Bishop of Maryland


Following are a prayer and poem to help you on your journey:

Most gracious God in heaven, be with Bishop Heather Cook and her family as they deal with the new and very painful reality of an accident and behavior that will change their lives forever. Be with the Palermo family as they grieve the sudden and tragic loss of a dear father, husband, and family member whose love and loss will forever be etched in their hearts. Be with the people of the Episcopal Churches of Maryland and Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton as they try to understand what has occurred. May they deal with all involved with compassion, grace, and the humility your child our savior Jesus Christ showed to each one of us. And dear God, grant your patience to all who would speak before knowing, that their words may not add injury to a deeply painful situation for all involved. Amen.

Written by the Rev. Elizabeth Geitz, and prayed by the clergy of the Diocese of Maryland gathered at the Claggett Conference Center on January 6.


“Trust in the slow work of God,” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.

Yet it is the law of all progress, that it is made
by passing through some stages of instability,
and that may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
— that is to say, grace —
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

1 John O’Donohue, “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace – Rediscovering The True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope.” Harper*Perennial, 2005, p.224-225


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