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US Episcopal Church ‘in denial’ over substance abuse among its leaders

29 March 2018


The former Episcopalian bishop Heather Cook, who is serving seven years in prison for killing a cyclist while driving drunk

The former Episcopalian bishop Heather Cook, who is serving seven years in prison for killing a cyclist while driving drunk

THE Episcopal Church in the United States has failed to address substance abuse within its senior ranks because of “an impaired system that maintains denial, and helplessness toward addiction, mental illness, and physical disease”, a report on its leadership has concluded.

The Report of the Commission on Impairment and Leadership in the Episcopal Church was published by the House of Deputies earlier this month.

Its investigation was prompted by the case of the former Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, Heather Cook, who is serving seven years in prison for killing a cyclist, Thomas Palermo, while driving drunk in January 2015 (News, 30 October 2015).

Ms Cook was picked up by the police, who gave her a breathalyser test and found that she was nearly treble the legal limit. She later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other offences, including texting while driving, drink-driving, and leaving the scene of an incident.

The report investigates the selection and formation of church leaders, and makes a series of recommendations, including how the Church should intervene when these “leaders demonstrate impairment”.

“The commission has observed how the isolation of leaders and the authority structures within and among dioceses can work together with the denial and co-dependence that are typical of addiction to prevent identification and treatment of impairment,” it says.

The Commission defines impairment as “the inability to exercise ministry with reasonable skill and safety by virtue of physical or mental illness, inebriation, or excessive use of drugs, narcotics, alcohol, chemicals, or other substances — or because of other behaviours”.

Ms Cook was one of several case-studies used to inform the report. “In all but one case,” it says, “we found a systemic disempowering of the individual and community to take responsibility and act in ways that would promote healing and wholeness of those affected by any form of impairment.

“Those familiar with substance abuse will recognize this dynamic of disempowerment as characteristic of the systemic consequences of addiction.”

The Commission had investigated the experience of other professionals, including doctors, nurses, lawyers, and pilots. “Our Church lags significantly behind these other groups in our understanding, effectiveness, and consistency in addressing issues of impairment among its ordained leadership.”

In its recommendations, the report says that preventative measures might include better training to increase knowledge, and creating new policies and practices about recognising and responding to impaired leadership.

Effective responses, the report concludes, might include “appropriate inquiry, intervention, and referral for evaluation and treatment”, and better support for impaired leaders “via re-entry, re-licensing, ongoing monitoring, and accountability”.

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