Out and About (Sort of): Justice Be Served by Howard Freedlander

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This is tough to write. Since it seems like piling on.

But justice and fairness must rule.

Nearly three years ago, Bishop Heather Cook, suffragan (#2) bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Baltimore, was sentenced to seven years in prison for killing a bicyclist in Baltimore while she was texting and driving drunk. She caused inestimable harm to the victim’s family, robbing a wife of a husband and two children of a father—two days after Christmas in 2014.

Why does this case matter to us on the Eastern Shore?

Because Heather Cook once served in the Diocese of Easton. Because she was involved in a drunken driving accident in 2010 in Caroline County. Because both Episcopal dioceses seemingly chose to overlook the Rev. Cook’s signs of alcoholism.

Because a 41-year-old father and husband are dead, unnecessarily so.

Bishop Cook is now seeking early release to spend the rest of her seven-year sentence on home detention. It seems inconceivable she has the chutzpah to file such a request.

The victim’s family will have a large say as to whether Heather Cook spends the rest of her sentence at home. As it should.

The Palermo family cannot seek early release from grief and suffering. It is scarred forever.

When I wrote three years ago about Bishop Cook’s killing of a bicyclist and being charged with manslaughter, drunken driving, driving while texting and leaving the scene of the accident, I thought about her apparent unwillingness to face her previous signs of alcohol-induced misbehavior. I faulted the Easton Diocese for failing to take stronger action after the Caroline County accident. I faulted the Diocese of Baltimore for failing to investigate Heather Cook’s history of drinking. And I faulted the church for its lax attitude toward priests facing addiction problems.

Guilt for inattention was pervasive.

At Christ Church in Easton, an Episcopal church, I listen almost weekly to the constant call for forgiveness. I read scripture at services and listen to sermons proclaiming that God’s will demands sympathy, even for those who defy human compassion.

When I wrote a few years ago about the Cook case, I summoned a smidgeon of sympathy for Heather Cook. I recognized the severity of alcohol addiction. I understood the excruciating pain in claiming an addiction and taking responsibility for it, deciding to extract the addiction from one’s life and soul and going about setting a different agenda and approach to stress.

Life without addiction is liberating—but not without a fight, not without a burning desire to live free of substance abuse and not without strong support from family and friends.

From what I have read, Heather Cook has shown no remorse for her crime. For me, that implies she has not acknowledged her alcoholism and its ability to destroy lives. Has 2-1/2 years in prison given her personal insight that clarifies for her the reason for her crime and the disabling nature of her addiction?

It seems not. Horrifying.

When Heather Cook prays to God and confesses her sins of commission and omission, I pray she talks honestly about addiction and apologizes for the death of Thomas Palermo. I pray she will leave prison—whenever that might be—determined to spread the gospel of self-awareness, candor about human flaws and a new-found addiction to sobriety.

I may be “wishin and hopin,” to borrow the lyrics of the old Dionne Warwick song.

At some point, Heather Cook will get a second chance, but not yet. She should treasure it and pray for a life dedicated to service to others, one unburdened by dependence on alcohol.

Justice calls for a longer term in prison—and evidence of soul-felt honesty and remorse about vehicular murder.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Beryl Smith says:

    Thank you for those thoughts. If service to the church is a “higher calling” then it seems that a willingness to seek forgiveness is but a part of learning and striving. To serve a prison sentence is a small penance compared to the one grief and life adjustments the Palermo family is serving and will continue to serve. Let the sentence be finished out, and perhaps after the full time something will have been learned and she may become a better person.

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