Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth. Alcohol, the Episcopal Church and the death of Thomas Palermo.

Since December 27th, 2014 the Episcopal Church has been in embroiled in grief, controversy, and questions about the clergy, addiction, responsibility and the place of alcohol in our denomination.

Heather Cook’s arrest photo

In short this tragic situation involves Bishop Heather Cook, the recently consecrated Suffragan (assisting) Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland.  On December 27th, 2014 Cook struck and killed Thomas Palermo, a cyclist.  She then fled the scene only to return about 30 minutes later.  When the dust settled, it was found that Cook was drunk, blowing a 2.2 BAL (which is almost 3 times the legal limit) and was also texting when she hit Palermo.

As awful as these revelations were they were just the beginning.

It turns out that in 2010 when working as diocesan staff in the neighboring Diocese of Easton, Cook was also arrested for DUI, this time blowing a 2.7.  When pulled over it was found that she had vomited on herself, had bottles of whiskey and wine in the car as well as pot and pipe.  Cook went to rehab and was given probation before judgment meaning that her record was expunged once she completed  her probation.  Most recently it was reported that she was inebriated at a dinner the night before her consecration as Bishop.

In addition to the many criminal charges now facing here, the Diocese has  called for her resignation and a formal investigation by the Episcopal Church has begun that could bring its own charges and trial.  A complete timeline and other information can be found here and here.

Thomas Palermo with one of his children

Her prior problems have raised a multitude of questions and criticism regarding the process by which she was vetted and why her 2010 DUI was not publically disclosed during the process leading to her election.  There is a great deal of debate about where responsibility lies and you can read a number of essays and op-eds on the matter.  It is not my intent to rehash them here.  However, if you wish to make a donation to help fund the education of Thomas Palermo’s two children, you can do so here.

church and boozeAs you might imagine this tragedy has also ignited a discussion in the Church about the role that alcohol plays, not just among addicted clergy, but in our culture.  The Episcopal Church has a rather boozy reputation.  It is a commonly repeated joke that, “Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth.”  It is not uncommon to find wine, sherry or beer served at parish events and sometimes, even at Vestry meetings. Here at St. Tim’s we brew beer in the basement to serve at parish events.   Indeed, my whole “Priest in a Bar” shtick is made possible only because of my denomination’s alcohol-tolerant attitude.

Yet now many are questioning whether or not it has gone too far.  And they do not simply mean the lost life of Thomas Palermo or the ruined career of Heather Cook.  People are now wondering what impact the prevalence of alcohol might have on enabling addiction among members and clergy alike and also whether or not it creates a hostile atmosphere for people in recovery.

It has prompted a response from The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies (made up of priests, deacons and lay people).   In it she calls for both a re-examination of the process by which our bishops are elected and also our polices on alcohol and other drugs.

A more unusual response comes from Bishop Scott Barker of Nebraska who has publically declared that he will not drink during the coming General Convention.  (General Convention is the triennial gathering of the whole Episcopal Church.  Each diocese sends a deputation made of clergy and laity elected by its own membership to take part in the deliberations and governance of the parent denomination.)  Looking at the comments when this has been shared on Facebook it seems that many are agreeing with him in questioning the place alcohol has in our Church life.

All of this is particular importance to me, not simply because I am an Episcopalian who engages in beer-based ministry, but also because at present I am involved with bodies directly affect by this tragedy and ensuing debate.  First, I serve on the Standing Committee which is currently in the midst of designing and defining the search process for our next Bishop.  This task has been made all the more sensitive given the questions raised about the reliability and transparency of how bishops get vetted and elected.  Moreover, I am a Deputy to this year’s General Convention where no doubt there will be much discussion about bishops, booze and their role in our Church.

Yet to me the real issue is not actually alcohol in and of itself.  It is a larger question of how we as a Church sometimes enable destructive behavior.  Let’s face it, it is hard to confront people about their serious problems.  It is even harder to continually hold someone accountable in order to actually deal with them.  And so we, especially those of us in leadership, tend to gloss over problems like addiction, depression, anger management and other pervasive issues that can affect health and performance of individuals and organizations.

As a result, many bishops and priests simply pass on problem clergy and staff without fully disclosing their issues.  Many times we do so in order to rid ourselves of having any further responsibility for them.  It is far easier to just pass them along than it is to openly deal with the real issues, not to mention the conflict and potential lawsuits that would ensue from fully disclosing them.  As we know this kind of complicity can have devastating consequences for our people as well as for the Church and its credibility.

But in the case of Heather Cook and people like her, the problem is even more insidious.  When it comes to bright and talented leaders we tend to minimize and even gloss over their issues.  Why?  Because we like them.  And so we want to believe them when they tell us they have it under control.  We don’t want to risk losing the energy and talent they bring should we actually did deeper.

In the case of Heather Cook everyone, and I do mean everyone, with knowledge of her 2010 DUI seemed to want to see it as a “one time event.”  Why?  Because by all accounts she was great priest.  Even the judge who sentenced her bought into this reasoning.  The prospect of digging deeper must have made too many people uncomfortable and so she was able to continue to lie and convince everyone that she had her problems under control.  More than our denomination’s acceptance of alcohol, it is our difficulty with confrontation and accountability that is truly responsible for the death of Thomas Palermo.

That said is still important for us continue to ask questions about the role that alcohol and addiction might play in our culture and structures.  We must make sure that people who are struggling with addiction can still find refuge in our pews and feel secure at our social events.  We also need to become more aware of the dynamics that addiction can create.  Just like in a family system there are some parishes and even some dioceses that work to enable their alcoholic priest or bishop.  We need more training and more awareness.  We need more sensitivity and greater courage to confront the problems addiction can cause.  We need to keep talking, listening and praying.  And above all we need to examine our own hearts and confront our own complicity with and capacity for addiction.

As more news emerges and I reflect further, I expect to write more on this in the weeks to come.  As always I welcome your thoughts on how the Church should deal with this tragedy and how we can work towards becoming healthier and more like the one whom we claim to follow.

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4 thoughts on “Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth. Alcohol, the Episcopal Church and the death of Thomas Palermo.

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