Bishop Heather Cook

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Here’s your periodic reminder that — from “Save Chick-fil-A” legislation to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals — the Dallas Morning News sure could use a religion writer.

When police this week raided Diocese of Dallas offices related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the Texas newspaper — to which I subscribe — put a team of reporters on it and produced two front-page stories (here and here).

The team included a projects/enterprise writer, two police/crime reporters and a city hall writer/columnist. A Godbeat pro on the team? Sadly, the Dallas Morning News doesn’t have one, despite the importance of religion in that Bible Belt city. (There’s another Page 1 report today, again by a public safety reporter.)

Ironically, the paper’s initial coverage included an opinion piece (“Why it's good Dallas police ran out of patience with the Catholic Diocese on sex abuse”) by metro columnist Sharon Grigsby. Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Grigsby founded the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section (now defunct) and oversaw a team of six religion writers and editors.

Those were the days!

Turning from the Big D, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Alabama’s passage of a law banning abortion in almost all cases tops the week’s headlines.

Since my post pointing out the holy ghosts in much of the news coverage, the religion angle has received major treatment from the New York Times (here and here) and showed up in The Associated Press’ headline on the state’s governor signing the anti-abortion bill into law.

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Baltimore Sun skips key angle in DUI bishop case: Why was Heather Cook using that cellphone?

Baltimore Sun skips key angle in DUI bishop case: Why was Heather Cook using that cellphone?

It made headlines at the end of 2014 and during 2015, and the DUI-linked vehicular homicide conviction of a now-former Episcopal bishop in Baltimore made news again last week.

Heather "DUI bishop" Cook, at one time the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Church's Maryland Diocese, will remain in prison until at least 2020. She failed to gain early release at a parole hearing mandated by state law.

Cook, whose seven-month tenure as a bishop effectively ended with the December 2014 crash that killed cyclist Tom Palermo, expressed no remorse at the hearing, according to media reports. (She actually resigned on May 1, 2015, roughly one year after being elevated to the role.) The Baltimore Sun, which has been on top of the story since the accident, sums things up for us:

The Maryland Parole Commission on Tuesday denied the parole request of Heather Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who is serving a seven-year prison sentence for the drunken-driving crash that killed a bicyclist in 2014.
Commission chairman David Blumberg said the two commissioners who ruled on the case told him they denied Cook parole in part because she "took no responsibility" for her actions and displayed a "lack of remorse" during the 90-minute hearing at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.
Cook's attorney for the hearing, Hunter L. Pruette, left without addressing reporters and could not be reached for comment.
Cook, 60, pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges of vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving, driving while texting and leaving the scene of an accident in the crash that killed 41-year-old Thomas Palermo on Dec. 27, 2014. She will no longer be eligible for parole.

The Sun report continues with a recapitulation of the case, as well as some of the comments made by Palermo's widow, Rachel, following the hearing. Watching this woman's statements -- see video above -- is painful. Two young children are without their father; a young wife was robbed of her husband. 

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Former Episcopal bishop Heather Cook is off to prison, but who took the financial fall?

Former Episcopal bishop Heather Cook is off to prison, but who took the financial fall?

It certainly appears, at this point, that the sad drama of former Maryland Episcopal bishop Heather Cook is over, at least the public part of this tragedy. She has been sentenced to seven years in prison for killing cyclist Thomas Palermo in a crash in which she was driving while drunk and distracted by the act of texting on her smartphone.

The Baltimore Sun report on the sentencing opens with gripping personal material about Cook and the Palermo family, and it's hard to fault the newspaper's staff for doing that.

But keep that smartphone in mind, because we will come back to it. You see, there was huge news in this story for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and the national Episcopal Church, but the Sun editors elected to bury it deep, deep, deep in the text.

I thought the following, near the top, was the most powerful passage, jumping right into the theodicy -- Where was God? -- angle of the story:

Prosecutors said Cook was far above the legal limit for alcohol and sending a text message as she drove her Subaru Forester in Roland Park on the afternoon of Dec. 27. She struck and killed Palermo, a 41-year-old software engineer and father of two young children, as he enjoyed a ride. She left the scene twice, a fact that weighed on judge Timothy J. Doory.

"Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision," Doory said.

Cook, 59, pleaded guilty last month to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident and other violations.

Patricia Palermo told the court that she had asked God many times why he let her son die -- until she had a revelation.

"God didn't do this," she said. "Heather Cook killed Tom."

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Life after the DUI bishop: Deseret News listens to Episcopal voices talk alcohol

Life after the DUI bishop: Deseret News listens to Episcopal voices talk alcohol

I imagine that faithful GetReligion readers noticed that in the past I have paid very close attention to the story of the DUI Episcopal Bishop in Maryland -- now simply Heather Elizabeth Cook, after she was defrocked.

It was, after all, a local story since I was living in Maryland at the time. This was also a story with the potential to have a strong impact on regional and national leaders in the Episcopal Church, even if Baltimore Sun editors didn't seem all that interested in that side of things.

With the trial ahead, it is also clear that this story is not over. Several Maryland Episcopalians and former Episcopalians kept raising an interesting question: If it is true that Cook was drunk AND texting, might she have been doing church business on a work cellphone when she struck and killed that cyclist? If so, what are the implications for the shrinking Maryland diocese?

Then there is the issue of the Episcopal Church and its love/hate relationship with alcohol. This is the stuff of cheap humor (insert joke about four Episcopalians here), but it is also a serious topic linked to substance abuse and people in power looking the other way. 

So during the recent Episcopal General Convention in Salt Lake City, the Cook case made it impossible for church leaders not to talk about alcohol. To their credit, it appears that they took this issue fairly seriously. With gay-marriage rites in the news, however, the coverage of the topic was light.

Thus, I want to point readers toward a major feature story on this topic that ran in The Deseret News. It is somewhat awkward to do this because it was written by former GetReligionista Mark Kellner, who now works on that newspaper's national religion desk. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Besides, how can you pass up a story with an anecdotal, on-the-record lede as devastating as this one?

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Baltimore Sun still ignoring obvious national Episcopal Church story in its own back yard

Baltimore Sun still ignoring obvious national Episcopal Church story in its own back yard

Obviously, my personal relationship with The Baltimore Sun has changed in the past few weeks.

As I sit here at my home office desk, looking out into an East Tennessee forest, I no longer have a copy of the Sun sitting nearby, retrieved from my front yard. Every few days, I get one of those computer-driven emails from the Sun circulation department proclaiming, "We want you back!" or words to that effect. I filled out my ex-subscriber online feedback form the other day and it was totally about cyber-issues, without a single question on news content.

Nevertheless, I am trying -- sorting through the online summaries and waves of pop-up ads -- to keep up with some of the important, ongoing religion stories in Maryland.

Take, for example, the obvious Baltimore angles in the national Episcopal Church gathering out in Utah. I have been looking for references to two important Episcopalians -- former bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook and current Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton. You just know that Episcopalians have been talking about the DUI bishop case and the state of legal affairs in Maryland. Right?

The Sun team did, leaning on Associated Press wire copy, run a short story about the election of the church's new presiding bishop, noting a strong Baltimore connection. That little story began like this:

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, the first African-American to lead an Episcopal diocese in the southerm United States and a former rector in Baltimore, will become the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

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Strange tea leaves (and silent lighthouse guns) in latest Baltimore Sun story about DUI bishop

Strange tea leaves (and silent lighthouse guns) in latest Baltimore Sun story about DUI bishop

The sad story of the DUI Bishop Heather Cook rolls on here in Charm City, even when appears that there are few if any concrete developments to report. But is the drama continuing behind the scenes at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and in the national Episcopal Church?

Maybe. Thus, it should be noted that The Baltimore Sun published a rather strange, and thus interesting, feature story the other day that focused on the role that may or may not have been played in this story by U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The goal appears to be to place the Cook tragedy in the context of recent Episcopal warfare (while avoiding global angles and, at the same time, cutting the Anglican wars timeline very, very short).

But toward the end of this story there are some interesting moments of silence. I cannot tell if the Sun editors simply do not realize the implications of some of their own reporting.

This brings me, once again, to the parable of the old lighthouse keeper. Remember that one?

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic. This lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts.
Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire. This rare silence awoke the keeper, who lept from bed shouting, "What was that?"

Yes, readers may substitute the famous Sherlock Holmes image of the dog that didn't bark at this point. Either way, what is the loud silence in this story?

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Say what? Another revelation shreds the timeline in sad case of Bishop Heather Cook of Maryland (updated)

Say what? Another revelation shreds the timeline in sad case of Bishop Heather Cook of Maryland (updated)

First, a confession (as Great Lent approaches): I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian who lives in Maryland, which by definition means that I know many former Episcopalians. So from the beginning of the sad saga of the DUI Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook, I have heard people trying to make sense of the timeline and trying to discern its impact -- spiritual, political and financial -- on the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

The working theory: Cook was a legacy case, the daughter of a powerful local priest (a recovering alcoholic who was a pioneer in ministry to alcoholics). It appears that Cook was an effective parish pastor and then, during a decade as an administrator in the quiet and well-bred Eastern Shore Diocese of Easton, her work load pushed her deep into drink. Thus, the horrible 2010 DUI episode involving burning rubber, vomit, a fifth of whiskey and some marijuana.

But she received treatment and the Diocese of Maryland, without letting all of the voters know about that DUI thing, selected her as a bishop. Then perhaps the stress returned? Thus, the strange sermon on bad habits and safe driving and then the fatal collision with a cyclist. She has been charged with criminal negligent manslaughter, using a texting device while driving, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death and three charges of drunken driving. Bail: $2.5 million.

But now there is this timeline shocker, care of The Washington Post and several other sources, including former GetReligionista George Conger, who now writes for The Media Project. The Post story opens with this:

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland suspected that Heather Cook -- now charged in the drunken-driving death of a Baltimore bicyclist -- was drunk during her installation festivities this past fall, a new official timeline shows. ...

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For journalists, grammar is always important: Episcopal vs. Episcopalian in Breitbart

For journalists, grammar is always important: Episcopal vs. Episcopalian in Breitbart

I am a great fan of the Breitbart website. It is a fresh and vibrant addition to the stable of online news portals.

Also, Breitbart London is one of my daily reads, and I am a fan of the site's editor James Delingpole -- one of the sharpest minds with one of the sharpest pens writing today.

The brand has grown in recent years, branching out from its base of political and media reporting. Over the past year it has made a strong showing in religion reporting and commentary. Delingpole’s Dec. 30 opinion piece entitled “Pope embraces the Green Religion” is wicked (and fun).

However, the venture into religion reporting does produce the occasional misstep. A piece entitled “Maryland Diocese admits female bishop ran over and killed cyclist” makes some beginner's mistakes in its report on Bishop Heather Cook (pictured).

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Jeopardy does religion: Name a small, but historically prominent Protestant denomination in American life

Jeopardy does religion: Name a small, but historically prominent Protestant denomination in American life

The accident in which a car driven by Episcopal Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland hit and fatally injured a cyclist has continued to receive coverage in the back pages of some major newspapers. As I mentioned the other day, much of the discussion has focused on her previous DUI arrest. The big question now: Was she using a smartphone at the time of the accident, perhaps one owned by the diocese?

Meanwhile, the following passage in a Washington Post follow-up story raised eyebrows among religion-beat professionals for reasons that transcended the facts surrounding Cook's election, the importance of the fatal (some insist hit-and-run) accident and the ongoing investigative work being done by police:

Several people who were part of the bigger convention that voted for Cook this spring said they were not told about the arrest.
Cook was initially charged with driving under the influence, reckless driving and possession of marijuana, among other charges, but received “probation before judgment” and completed her probation.
The diocese’s statement Tuesday said Cook disclosed the 2010 case to those considering electing her a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a small but historically prominent American Protestant denomination.

Say what? Have we really reached the point where journalists need to offer readers explanatory material about the existence of the Episcopal Church?

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