PRIESTHOOD & DUIS: ADDICTION IN THE CLERGY
As most addicts and alcoholics know, the disease of addiction doesn’t discriminate. People of every race, gender, and creed fall victim to the debilitating cycle of use, abuse, and self-destruction — even, as a recent case in Maryland demonstrates, respected members of the clergy.
Heather Cook was an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Maryland, the second highest-ranking bishop in the state, when she was charged with manslaughter in the hit-and-run death of Tom Palermo. Her blood alcohol content at the time of the accident was 0.22, nearly three times the state limit. She began receiving treatment for alcohol abuse immediately, was asked to resign less than a month later, and lost her ordination on May 1st. Most recently, her trial was postponed, leading to plea bargain speculation. According to some sources, despite the diocese’s quick response, Cook’s case has deeply troubled many within the Episcopal Church — prompting questions about alcohol abuse within the clergy, the church’s sometimes easy access to alcohol, how long church leaders knew of her illness and whether the delegates who elected her in September were informed.
Her replacement, chosen this month, is the Rt. Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, a former bishop of Maine, “widely respected author and counselor in the field of addiction recovery,” and herself a successful recovering alcoholic. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Knudsen described her recovery as central to her position as a church leader, saying, “I believe that every … moment of pain and every experience of grief and loss and anger breaks us open in a way that allows new things to happen. I believe God can bring beautiful things out of awful things.”
Recovery is available for all addicts and alcoholics, and tragedy need not be the catalyst for that recovery. Yet, as Knudsen makes clear, long-term sobriety is not only possible but can be a source of transformation and power, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Despite her devastating missteps, hopefully Cook, too, can find this light in the darkness.