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

WASHINGTON – The case of a high-ranking Episcopal bishop charged with drinking and texting before fatally hitting a bicyclist has raised questions about everything from church politics to 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 impact 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 Listservs, the ways Episcopal officials handled Cook have fueled debate about how Christianity really 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. Joe 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 but she did not, the Diocese of Maryland said.

Christians close to the topics of addiction and recovery have been debating the case of Cook since the December 27 death of Thomas Palermo.

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

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 – which includes 21,500 households in parts of west, central and southern Maryland – 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 in recovery who in 2012 wrote a book called “Grace in Addiction,” said he worries that cases like 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 wrote. “I hope the church is more trusting, not less, than the world, of people, of hope, of transformation.

On Tuesday, the 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 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.”