Magazine article The Christian Century

Episcopal Church Examines Policies on Alcohol Abuse after Bishop's DUI Crash

Magazine article The Christian Century

Episcopal Church Examines Policies on Alcohol Abuse after Bishop's DUI Crash

Article excerpt

Episcopal Church clergy and laypeople alike are rereading church policy on alcohol and the consecration of bishops after a fatal December crash in Baltimore in which a bishop drove while drunk.

They are discussing how addiction is handled and whether the church itself was in any way culpable in the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old husband and father of two.

Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, one of two main governing bodies of the 2-million-member denomination, said many Episcopalians are asking why church leaders allowed Heather Cook to be confirmed as bishop last September despite their knowledge of her struggle with alcohol.

"Sometimes a tragedy happens and people move on after a couple of weeks," Jennings said. "This particular tragedy has caused many people to not only look at the issue of alcoholism and other drug addictions but also how we select and elect our leaders, our bishops."

Jennings is appointing a committee to review the church's policies on alcohol and drug abuse, which date back to 1985, and to propose new resolutions to be considered at the church's General Convention in Salt Lake City from June 25 to July 3.

In a recent letter to lay and clergy members of the House of Deputies, Jennings suggested that church leaders were too timid in the face of Cook's problems. The bishop, 58, now faces 13 charges, including vehicular homicide, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of the crime (she later returned).

In 2010, Cook was caught behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of .27--more than three times the legal limit in Maryland--and pleaded guilty. That information was not disclosed last May when Cook was elected a suffragan, or deputy, bishop of Maryland.

"The church can sometimes confuse secrecy and confidentiality," Jennings wrote to the deputies. "Our desire for reconciliation can sometimes make us reluctant to confront one another in love."

The church's presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who presided at Cook's consecration last September, has formally restricted Cook's public ministry, directing her not to present herself "as an ordained person of this Church in good standing."

As the Episcopal Church's carefully crafted policy on alcohol use shows, it has hardly ignored the issue. Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church--operating independently but alongside the church--help parishes across the country with clergy or congregants struggling with drugs and alcohol. …

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