Case of bishop accused in bicyclist’s death opens debate about theology of addiction

The case of a high-ranking Episcopal bishop accused of driving under the influence and texting when she fatally struck a bicyclist has raised questions about issues including church politics and bike lanes. But no debate about Bishop Heather Cook has been as intense as that about the theology of addiction.

Is it a sin? Does it qualify for forgiveness? Or are addicts blameless victims of disease, inculpable?

And how did these topics affect the leaders of the dioceses of Easton and Maryland — Cook’s last two places of employment — first when she was arrested for drunken driving in 2010 and then last year when she was selected despite that to become Maryland’s first female bishop?

In small church discussion groups, in sermons and on Christian e-mail groups, the ways Episcopal officials handled Cook have fueled debate over how Christianity sees addicts.

“Right now in the addictions community, there is a lot of reaction to people who want to see addiction as a moral failing,” said the Rev. Joseph Stewart-Sicking, a priest in Cook’s diocese who teaches pastoral counseling at Loyola University Maryland. “Sin is something we are all wrapped up in, and when you start delineating sin, we miss out that we are all interrelated. It’s not just her role that led to the suffering. Obviously other people are involved, we ourselves are involved, even if it’s making a society that someone can’t come out and get help they need.”

Stewart-Sicking was part of the larger convention that finalized Cook’s position as bishop. The small search committee that put her on the slate did not tell the convention about her 2010 arrest. The committee asked her to disclose the arrest, but she did not, the Maryland Diocese said.

Christians close to the topics of addiction and recovery have been debating the case of Cook since the death of Thomas Palermo, 41, who was struck Dec. 27 while riding in a bike lane in Baltimore.

Having turned herself in to police Jan. 9 on charges of manslaughter, driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident, Cook, 58, met her $2.5 million bail requirement last Thursday with the help of a defrocked priest she calls her “steady companion,” according to the Baltimore Brew.

Cook has not yet entered a plea in the case or made any public statements. Aside from a brief comment in the days after the accident, her attorneys have said little.

Since the accident, leaders in both dioceses have declined to explain how they viewed and handled her drinking, whether she was required to be in treatment after the 2010 incident in Easton or how much she was asked last spring about that by the small search committee.

Immediately after the accident, the Diocese of Maryland — which includes 21,500 households in western, central and southern sections of the state — released a short statement.

“One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness. We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption,” it said.

Some Episcopalians have suggested that the denomination’s liberal tendencies had been harmful in Cook’s case.

“We love to give people the benefit of doubt, ‘There but for the grace of God,’ and all that,” said Diana Butler Bass, a prominent progressive church historian. “We’re not the church that likes to condemn people. In this case, it worked in the wrong direction.”

Butler Bass also commented on the role of forgiveness.

“I don’t always think church people understand the depth and complexity of addiction. Forgiveness isn’t the solution to addiction. And people in leadership should know that,” she said.

But John Zahl, an Episcopal priest in South Carolina who is in recovery and wrote a book in 2012 called “Grace in Addiction,” said he worries that cases such as Cook’s could make church leaders and members more hesitant to forgive in the future.

“The word ‘forgiveness’ is integral to the Christian faith. A church that gets hesitant about forgiveness is distancing itself from what makes it distinctly profound,” he said. “I hope the church is more trusting, not less, than the world, of people, of hope, of transformation.”

On Tuesday, the Maryland Diocese’s bishop, the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, wrote that the church needs to have a conversation about addiction. Sutton wrote that he struggled over blame.

“After discussing this tragedy with some of my bishop colleagues for over an hour and being held up in prayer by them, one said, ‘Eugene, I am the child of an alcoholic, and I’ve spent many years dealing with that and coming to understand the hold that alcohol has on someone who is addicted to it. I want to tell you that the Diocese of Maryland is not responsible for the terrible accident that killed that bicyclist. You are not responsible for that; Heather Cook is. It’s not your fault.’ I burst into tears,” he said.

The Rev. Stephen Rossetti, a pastoral studies professor at Catholic University who used to head a Silver Spring treatment facility for clergy called Saint Luke Institute, said the clergy sex-abuse crisis forced the Catholic Church to grapple with the subject of forgiveness more deeply.

“One thing we learned is there is a difference between forgiveness and ministry. We can forgive someone, but that doesn’t mean the person has a right to ministry,” he said. “Sure, we can forgive you, but does that mean you have a right to any ministry? No. People say it’s not forgiving, but it is.”

The Catholic Church, he said, has become much more conservative with people entering the clergy who have had substance abuse issues. “We are less open to it. . . . We’ve been burned and are cautious.”

But even as society has become more accepting of the idea that alcoholism is a disease, the public revulsion toward Cook — who was given “probation before judgment” in 2010 — has been great. Many Christian blogs and sermons cited the role of sin in Cook’s case.

Rossetti said clinicians such as himself “have settled this debate” and see addiction as a disorder. However, he said, basic Christian theology sees sickness, death or “any human weakness” as the result of the initial fall of humankind, of the first sin (which in the Bible, of course, refers to Adam and Eve).

“This does not mean to say that any individual who is an alcoholic or depressed has sinned simply by being an alcoholic or by being depressed. No, they inherit these fallen aspects of a broken humanity. But our culpability enters regarding our response — if one is an alcoholic, one has the obligation to face it and try to find healing and to overcome it,” he said.

Zahl said scripture seems to characterize sin as a sickness. The Gospel According to Mark, he noted, quotes Jesus as saying: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

“We view sick people with compassion but have a hard time viewing moral failing with compassion,” Zahl said. Jesus “didn’t seem to have a hard time with that.”