When the terrible, terrifying and awful happens.

This is a short note on the actions of Heather Cook who, while driving, struck with her car a cyclist, who died, and who left the scene of the accident and returned. 

This is not a note about Bishop Heather Cook. There are lots of comments about her being bishop and whether or not she was reasonably vetted before the election, about addiction and recovery, and about responsibility for leaving the scene of an accident, the accident itself, and other actions.

That way leads to the exploration of who is responsible and for what. But too that way leads to a variety of blame games. That way leads to the titillation of catching a “church leader” or the “first woman bishop in Maryland” in trouble.  The internet world and the newshounds have had a fine time exploring “Bishop Cook” issues. And there is enough of that to go around.  “Bad Bishop Cook” and “bad ecclesiastical decisions” are both bait for the hooks in the news feeding frenzy that the whole matter has become.

This is not a note about the cyclist, Thomas Palermo. There is a lot written about him, and about how good a person and  a cyclist he was.  And he was.  There is a lot of grieving and considerable anger about his death.  

This is a note about Heather Cook the human being, who comes from a long line of human beings related in turn to a whole host of living beings who when confronted with extraordinary threat reacts in ways not always up to frontal lobe human ethical standards. 

When we are threatened by appalling realities (and sudden crash, accident and death qualify) the startling rush of body response can lead to a variety of responses, sometimes referred to as fight, flight or freeze, none of which are thought out moral and rational actions, but rather more primal.

A lot has been written about her leaving the scene of the accident, how far she went, why she stopped, and why she returned to the accident scene.  These comments have been about the rational and moral actions of Heather Cook, who as a thinking human being, and particularly as a bishop ought to be clearly moral and rational. The “bishop thing” keeps creeping in. 

Morally and rationally, and legally she was wrong to have left the scene of the accident. It lends speculative support to the notion that she had done something wrong at the time of the accident and that it was not an accident without fault or blame, and that she knew it. Further by leaving she left the victim without whatever aid she might have offered. That all may be true, but we don’t know it now. We will see.

But Heather Cook, the human being, shares with all of us a lot of reactive behaviors that are unrelated to our rational or moral selves, or our training in moral or rational action.  Those do not make the news more interesting, nor do they excuse her higher level rational behavior.  But those behaviors are there and we don’t quite know what to make of that reality – that we sometimes respond in immediate ways that are not particularly cognitive, and that those reactions include a variety of angers, avoidances and emotional shutdowns.

We are left doing the more rational and moral things we do when sudden and strange death comes. We grieve for Thomas Palermo’s death and for his family, for Heather Cook in her distress, and for an accounting that is true to the realities of what happened, and to accountability where it lies. And we pray for all.

Yet perhaps too in all of this, they and we are creatures of deeply ingrained responses, and likely to act before we reason. And how do we pray for ourselves or others as reactive beings? 


  1. Well said - so easy to throw blame and cast aspersions as if by doing so we can believe ourselves incapable of such human actions. Prayers for everyone, even ourselves.

  2. Thank-you Mark- just thank-you.

  3. Mark, I have a question.

    If I were in a position of responsibility in TEC in MD, the thought going through my mind would be: if we seek to host bicycle events, raise money, pray, etc, won't it just look like we are doing anything we can to avoid a major civil suit or criminal suit or bad PR campaign against us?

    I would have thought the way forward was to put on black and sit in the ashes like Job. I hope they checked with the Palermo family about clearance for public events. Did they?


  4. Brother Tom+5/1/15 10:58 AM

    A few corrections: the Diocese of Maryland did not host the bicycle event and did not create the fund for Mr Palermo's children. The event was the project of the cycling club to which Mr Palermo belonged. It began at a convenient place - the intersection where the Cathedral of the Incarnation has sat for 100 years or so. The Cathedral did make its private parking lot available to cyclists. I don't know if any of them used it. The diocese did not take any formal part in the event, but the Maryland Episcopal Clergy Association (MECA) did encourage its members to ride, stand on the sidelines, offer water, etc. and of course to pray, while wearing clerical collars - to show support for the event and the friends and family of Mr Palermo. The fund for his children was set up by the same cycling club, as far as I can tell. Thus, there was no need for the diocese to "check with the family about clearances for public events" - if there ever would be such a need. A public event is just that - public. Rest assured that the clergy and the diocese are behaving with absolute sensitivity to the family's feelings and needs at this time.

  5. Well said. Thank you. We are all embedded in something more vast and pervasive than one particular moment, for good or ill. It's very Pauline. Lord, have mercy. I was just reading an essay by Roger Grenier (Camus was his mentor) about "fait divers" - crimes and scandals that feed an odd public appetite, and he asks: "Where does the crime begin? In what confusing past does it take root?" And then he quotes Paul Valery: "The crime cannot be located at the exact moment when the crime takes place, nor right before - but rather in a well-established situation, distant from the act, developed over time..."

  6. John 2007 writes: I pray for her and would not say a word against her. Merton somewhere says s'thing like 'the saint knows no man's sin but only the mercy of God. And his mission is to bring that mercy to all people.'

    As you, Mark, have brought up the issue of responses that are reactionary/instinctive and not part of 'our cognitive or moral selves' I would--addressing this as a philosophical issue, apart from Bishop Cook--strongly suggest that we can't pretend that many of our reactive patterns are NOT products of our own choices and inclinations and affections over time. Nor can we segment the self into a moral self and a cognitive self--and any other self--that takes away all culpability from the reactive self you posit. Many so-called innocent mistakes (again, not focusing on this case) are far from that. A great example is found in a book by D Ford's The Shape of Living of a scottish surgeon who was handed the wrong bottle of anesthesia (in 19th c) and was acquitted of fault when patient died. One of his colleagues, however, said that a surgeon who had mastered his craft would have felt the weight of the bottle and would have known it wasn't ether, just by the feel of it. But this surgeon had his whole life taken short cuts and was brilliant enough to get by without learning all the intricacies of his task. And, one day, a lifetime of doing just enough to get by, proved costly.

    The sad case of Bishop Cook calls for a full dose of compassion. She, like each of us, is a child of Adam and Eve. Yet there is more than pouring out compassion to ponder prayerfully before God in our own solitude, for ourselves, and what we are shaping in our deep selves and daily selves ought to be a pressing question.

  7. Christina Brennan Lee - Do none of us have to take responsibility because anyone else can make such a mistake as we have? where does responsibility go for driving and not fleeing if one hits something or someone?
    Because I'm an imperfect human capable of such actions, does that mean my former neighbor should not have been convicted and sent to prison for child molestation? If the judge were also a molester, should my neighbor have been let off?

    I completely agree that we also need prayers. We need prayer more than anything. But shouldn't we find someone guilty and in need of some form of punishment if they have done something wrong? And still pray for them.

    In a recent sermon, in November 2014, Heather seems to encourage us to be responsible.
    She refers to being prepared not only for known events, such as weddings, planning for the birth of a child, drivers license test, but also unanticipated or unexpected things, "and if we're not ready then, it's too late to borrow what we need from someone else. The moment has come and gone, and it's too late if we don't have what we need." ... "If we routinely drive 55 in a 30 mph zone, we won't be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous, or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us."


  8. The Diocese is organizing a fundraiser.

  9. Mark,

    Now we read the tragic details.

    To have a .22 blood alcohol level -- read 40 minutes after the accident -- translates into 8 or so drinks. At 11.00 in the morning.

    Could anyone be drinking this heavily without co-workers knowing?

    One can also wonder if diocesan committees are civilly liable. A .27 reading in 2010 and now this.


  10. Thankfully, very few reactive beings leave an accident scene where they've just killed someone. They ARE the exception, and couching this as typical human behavior is taking an unrepresentative case as representative. Bishop Cook failed as a human in her reaction, and it was not because reactive behavior is typical. It is because she was driving with a .22 BAC and texting. We are all flawed, yes, but I for one do not think we should offer a "we are all flawed" defense for a bishop who had extreme misconduct, and who has not yet made a statement apologizing.


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