Maryland drama: An Episcopal bishop, her DUI record, a dead cyclist and the 'above reproach' debates

Let's call it the "shoe on the other political foot" argument.

How many times have you heard media critics argue that a particular media outlet -- The New York Times is the villain of choice for the right and Fox News for the left -- might have covered a story or have covered said story more intensely if the sin or crime in question had been committed by a leader on the opposing side?

It's a popular argument, quite frankly, because it is often a valid argument. Why did so many newsroom feminists cut President Bill Clinton so much slack? Why do some conservatives still think Rush Limbaugh belongs in the choir of cultural conservatives?

The same thing happens with ecclesiastical shoes on the feet of powerful sinners. But this syndrome is not taking place, at the moment, in mainstream coverage of the tragic auto accident in which Episcopal Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of Maryland hit and killed 41-year-old cyclist Thomas Palermo, a father of two. Driven by powerful early coverage in The Baltimore Sun and follow-up work at The Washington Post, this story is now being pushed past the ugly details and into larger questions, both legal and theological.

The key questions: Was this a hit-and-run accident? What caused the bishop to hit a bike in such an open piece of road, with excellent sight lines? Should an earlier DUI -- involving alcohol and marijuana -- have prevented her selection as a bishop? Here is the gripping top section of the major Sun report:

Moncure Lyon and other bystanders had stopped to help a badly injured cyclist on Roland Avenue on Saturday afternoon when a Subaru with heavy windshield damage drove by. Lyon wondered: Was this the car that had hit Thomas Palermo and left the scene?
There was only one way to find out. Lyon, 65, jumped on his Bianchi Steel Chromo bike and followed the vehicle as it drove away. He caught up with it at a stoplight and continued to follow as the car entered a nearby gated apartment community.
"I thought that car was involved in a potentially fatal hit-and-run of a biker, and I needed to get that license plate number," Lyon said. ....
The driver -- since identified by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and her attorney as high-ranking bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook -- would return to the scene. Palermo, 41 a married father of two young children, died of his injuries.

For the diocese, things get worse. Various sources report that Cook, a priest for 20 years, informed diocesan officials about her 2010 guilty plea to driving under the influence of alcohol. But did Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton -- frequently mentioned as a candidate to become U.S. presiding bishop -- and others pass that information along to all those who voted in the election that raised her to the episcopate?

The Sun quickly dug into the blunt details of that 2010 incident:

Caroline County District Court records show Cook was arrested after police saw her driving under the speed limit on the shoulder of the road on a shredded tire at 2 a.m. The officer who pulled her over reported that the car smelled of burning rubber and alcohol, and he saw vomit on her shirt.
A bottle of wine, a fifth of Irish whiskey and two baggies were inside the car, police said. On the passenger seat in plain view was a "metal smoking device." She was charged with possession of marijuana, but those charges were later dropped.

As the story unraveled, Diocese of Maryland officials released a statement that reflected some of the debates that are now unfolding in online forums. It said, in part:

One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness. We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption.
As part of the search process, Bishop Cook fully disclosed the 2010 DUI for which charges were filed resulting in a ‘probation before judgment.’ After extensive discussion and discernment about the incident, and after further investigation, including extensive background check and psychological investigation, it was determined that this one mistake should not bar her for consideration as a leader.
We, too are all filled with questions for which there are still no answers, and we are all filled with anger, bitterness, pain and tears.

Veteran religion-beat reporter Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post has followed with coverage of the basic facts, and much more. Here is a lengthy sample that shows the territory that is being explored in her work:

Well-trafficked public and private listservs and blogs about church life have been filled with people quoting scripture for both the notion that clergy be “above reproach” as well as the need for forgiveness, redemption and grace. ...
First Sunday came the news that the driver in the crash was a bishop -- the No. 2 Episcopal bishop in the Diocese of Maryland -- which initially drew a national audience intrigued by the moral complications of a high-ranking clergy possibly abandoning someone who was hurt. Then Monday and Tuesday came additional detail about an ugly 2010 drunk driving arrest involving Cook, then a priest. ...
The fact that top church leaders involved in picking Cook as bishop knew of the 2010 incident -- though they didn’t share the information with all people voting -- intensely divided people who took to the Web to debate whether it should have immediately disqualified her from becoming a bishop.
“I think we make a mistake when we extend ‘judge not’ to leadership. This is a Bishop, and we must hold our leaders accountable. I Timothy 3, whether you agree with the ‘letter of the law’ or not, is clearly asking us to make judgments about leadership,” wrote one of many commenters on the popular episcopalcafe blog, citing the long list of qualifications of an “overseer” in one part of New Testament scripture that can seem both ancient and modern.
“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money,” the Book of Timothy reads. “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him ... he must not be a recent convert.”

What happens next? Obviously police will investigate the role that alcohol may or may not have played in this tragedy. But what if the bishop was distracted while texting, on a diocesan phone and doing official church business? Is this shrinking diocese vulnerable? I raise that issue because this is a story that will almost certainly have financial and legal implications, as well as moral and religious ones.

In this case, it appears the press is seeing the various ghosts and pursuing them. Will national-level television networks do the same? Well, would they if this was a major evangelical leader?

Please respect our Commenting Policy