There are situations and people and events that are never really out-of-date, never completely “old news,” because they touch us in some deep way that transcends time and place and particulars. There are situations that continue to move us because they are never fully settled, because the moral questions they raise have only ambiguous answers, or no answers at all. We crave certainty. Human behavior is rarely certain. We are bothered by uncertainty and continue to return, again and again, to pick at the thread of an idea, hoping each time that a clearer resolution will appear.
So far, this story of a Bishop of the Episcopal Church who hit and killed a young man on a bicycle has not resolved itself in my mind. It still plagues me, touches me, confuses me, and makes me uncomfortable. It is the kind of story I wish would go away.
I first published this commentary, in the summer of 2015, on a liberal political website, “American News X.”
Very Personal Impressions of the Unforgivable: A Bishop, A Bottle, A Bicycle
I am a cradle Episcopalian and I believe all roads lead to God; I am a woman; I am a recovering alcoholic; my mother was an alcoholic; all my aunts and my uncle were alcoholics; my grandmother was an alcoholic.
On Saturday December 27, in the final days of 2014, Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, Maryland’s first female Bishop, struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo. Cook drove away from the scene but returned—after either twenty minutes or forty-five minutes, depending on which account you read. Reports from the cycling community claim that Bishop Cook returned only because she was pursued by other cyclists. However it happened, Bishop Cook drove away from the man she had killed. Later accounts confirmed that the Bishop had been drinking and that in 2010 she was pulled over by police and was, according to an article in The Washington Post, “too intoxicated to complete sobriety tests” (Boorstein and Shapiro, 12/30/14).
Bishop Cook’s father, the late Rev. Halsey Cook, was an Episcopal priest and an alcoholic. According to The Baltimore Sun in 1977, Cook said from the pulpit: “I am an alcoholic.” Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook’s father was well known for his work in fighting alcoholism in the ministry.
The first account of the hit and run I saw was written below a photograph of the Bishop in the middle of a service, arms outstretched, mouth open, doing what priests do—blessing the wine that will either become or will symbolize the blood of Christ in the ritual of the Eucharist.
I saw the collar, and the vestments, and the woman’s face.
And I saw, in memory, the face of another woman, above those colors.
In 1986, Geralyn Wolf, twelfth Bishop of Rhode Island (1996-2011), was ordained Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky. She was the first woman Dean of a Cathedral in the Episcopal Church. I was forty years old and teaching at a small private high school in Louisville. On the altar that day were Dean Wolf, newly ordained; Helen Jones, a Deacon; and an acolyte, a young girl. It was the first time I had seen, or even imagined, women at the altar, in the beautiful vestments of the Episcopal clergy, doing what women do: breaking bread, serving a meal. If I remember correctly, the host wasn’t the usual wafer but a fat loaf of homemade bread. I watched the women’s hands breaking it into chunks for the Lord’s Supper.
The Church and my recovery from alcoholism tell me that forgiveness is at the core of the spiritual life. Like everyone else who saw that photograph and read that story, I find it very difficult to forgive Bishop Cook for the unnecessary death of Thomas Palermo. Some days, nearly thirty-one years away from my last drink, I find it nearly impossible to forgive myself for the times I got behind the wheel of a car with too much alcohol in my body.
What we want here probably depends on where we are: Bishop Cook locked up forever; Bishop Cook getting some consideration because of the disease of alcoholism. We want this one nightmare not to mean that women shouldn’t be bishops. Nothing sounds right. What we want here is Thomas Palermo alive; the Bishop, like her father, sober.
A statement from the Maryland diocese reads, in part, “We, too, are all filled with questions for which there are still no answers, and we are all filled with with anger, bitterness, pain and tears.”
I don’t feel confident that those words will mean much to the family of Thomas Palermo.
Bishop Cook will likely be remembered for her hit-and-run killing of a young father; Bishop Wolf is known for the month she spent on the streets of Providence, Rhode Island, living with the homeless (Geralyn Wolf. Down and Out in Providence: Memoir of a Homeless Bishop). Both will be remembered because they are women.