(Updated Monday, Jan. 12)

Questions are swirling about methods used for vetting bishop candidates in the wake of a fatal incident in Baltimore involving a newly consecrated bishop with a drunken-driving record.

But consultants who advise search committees remain confident in the processes that dioceses use to select top leaders. Risk-assessment protocols are robust, they said, and give committees the latitude they need to make wise, case-by-case judgments.

Online conversation boards lit up soon after reports spread that the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, Bishop Suffragan of Maryland, had been driving a car that hit a bicyclist, who later died from injuries. Cook was charged Jan. 9 with manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. She initially left the scene of the December 27 incident in Baltimore, according to the diocese, but then returned to accept responsibility. The Baltimore Sun reported on one bicyclist, Moncure Lyon, who followed Cook home to an apartment complex before she returned to the accident scene.

Bp. Ihloff: Bp. Cook Has Violated Trust

The Rt. Rev. Robert Ihloff, Bishop of Maryland from 1995 to 2007 and interim rector of Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, writes about Bishop Cook’s case:

We do know an innocent man is dead and his family grieving. We know that Heather, the driver of the car left the scene of the accident and returned later. We do not yet know other crucial details; there is much speculation. However we know enough to assume Heather will not be allowed to resume her episcopal ministry. Why? She has violated the basis for our trust in leaving the scene of the accident.

Can she be forgiven? Yes, by God and after repentance. Can she be trusted as a leader of the Christian Church? Sadly, “No.” This accident will haunt her the rest of her life, regardless of what other details eventually come out. The Church deposes clergy who cross boundaries of sexual morality or who embezzle money or are guilty of a variety of crimes, including “hit and run.” It’s not that these persons no longer have a ministry or God can’t use them, it’s that we can no longer trust them to model a “wholesome example” as leaders in the Church.

Read the rest.

Some readers of Episcopal Café protested that the Rt. Rev. Cook had been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, yet was nominated and elected to lead the diocese. In 2010, she pleaded guilty to DUI and received probation before judgment; charges of marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia were dropped. Her ordination and consecration took place on September 6.

“This is a matter of moral character, and there seems to be a serious ethical failure in this instance,” wrote the Rev. John Farrell, a retired priest in the Diocese of New York. “I was also shocked to learn she was charged in 2010 with DUI and possession of pot. Could someone tell me where the hell the Suffragan Search Committee was on this one?”

Members of the Cook’s search committee declined to comment on their process because she is the subject of a disciplinary review, said Sharon Tillman, the diocese’s director for communications. Cook is on administrative leave pending church and police investigations. The diocese did, however, issue a statement on Dec. 30.

“As part of the search process, Bishop Cook fully disclosed the 2010 DUI for which charges were filed resulting in a ‘probation before judgment,’” the statement said. “After extensive discussion and discernment about the incident, and after further investigation, including extensive background check and psychological investigation, it was determined that this one mistake should not bar her for consideration as a leader.”

If convicted on all charges, Cook could face more than 20 years in prison. Prosecutors say her blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit and she was texting messaging at the time of the incident, according to a Baltimore Sun report.

Some are now calling for close examination of processes used by search committees, not only in Maryland but in other dioceses as well. Among the issues is whether search committees are sufficiently equipped to assess risks posed by candidates who have experienced problems in their lives.

“I don’t believe that 3 years is long enough sober after a DUI that the nominating committee should have allowed her name to go forward,” the Rev. Bill Carroll, rector of Emmanuel Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma, wrote at Episcopal Café. “We need to think carefully about how candidates are vetted and how criminal convictions of any kind are handled.”

Consultants to search committees are not convinced the Cook case has exposed a flawed system. They believe the processes, which vary somewhat from one diocese to the next, are rich with resources for assessing risk. The challenge lies in appointing committee members who will use those resources judiciously and block a nomination when necessary.

“We have a very good process of background checks and referencing,” said the Very Rev. Ronald Clingenpeel of Louisiana, who has been consulted with search committees for 17 years. “It requires, in terms of the referencing, that people be open and honest. … How one assesses risk depends on the information one receives.”

When seeking new bishops, every diocese conducts certain forms of due diligence. It considers criminal backgrounds and credit histories, physical and psychiatric examinations, civil court records, motor vehicle records, references from bishops in dioceses in which potential nominees have served, and self-disclosure questionnaires.

What happens with the gathered information, however, is at the discretion of the search committee, starting with the chair, Clingenpeel said. If the chair deems a misdemeanor to be insignificant decades later, or regards a settled lawsuit as non-germane, then the rest of the committee might never hear about those elements in a candidate’s past. If the committee does discuss such issues, nothing in Episcopal Church canons says it has to share them with the voting convention.

Some in the Diocese of Maryland have complained that the electing convention was not told about Cook’s DUI conviction. Sources interviewed for this story would not comment on the Maryland process leading to her election.

As a general rule, search committees need to be selective about what they disclose from a candidate’s background, even if it means withholding information that the committee has weighed and discussed in depth, said the Rt. Rev. Edward Salmon, dean and president of Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a past consultant on bishop- and rector-search committees. Sometimes relevant issues are of a personal nature and must be handled with care.

“The question is how to deal with private issues in a person’s life without making that public information, which is not helpful,” Bishop Salmon said.

Standing committees, which appoint search committees and receive their nominee slates, ultimately decide what in a candidate’s background is shared with the electorate.

“Anything that a standing committee wishes to share with the electorate is certainly up to them,” Clingenpeel said. “And they have to make some pastoral decisions around that also.”

When problems in a person’s background come before the search committee, the panel considers its options and next steps. They frequently seek guidance from consultants and from the Rt. Rev. Clayton Matthews of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development.

“What’s incumbent on a search committee,” Salmon said, “is to investigate, to see that the person has dealt with [the problem] and can give you certifiable evidence that professional people believe that it’s not an issue.” In the case of an alcoholic in recovery, he said, a committee should secure a written reference from the candidate’s substance-abuse counselor.

Few church canons apply to the bishop-search process, which is largely left to each diocese to structure and administer. Only a few codes apply: a candidate must be at least 30 years of age, for instance, and must receive consent from a majority of the church’s bishops and diocesan standing committees. Otherwise, any hard and fast rules are largely non-existent, unless a diocese has developed its own.

Thus a candidate is not automatically disqualified for having a criminal background or an episode of substance abuse within the past couple of years. In general, committees need not rely on rigid formulas for disqualifying candidates, Salmon said, because each case is different.

“If we got rid of every alcoholic, we’d get rid of some people who have been able to lick that by the grace of God and have been some of our finest leaders,” Salmon said. Whether a candidate has been sober long enough to become a bishop is a judgment best made with counsel from professionals who have worked with the individual, he said.

In the absence of hard-and-fast disqualifiers, committees may take into account what a candidate has done to overcome setbacks or manage challenges. It’s important for them to consider factors such as the candidate’s degree of self-awareness and ability to use effective compensating strategies, according to Suzanne Foucault, a San Diego-based consultant to bishop search committees.

General Convention could potentially vote to create new rules that would bind all search committees and make risk assessment more consistent. But Episcopalians have long been content to leave most vetting to local committees representing unique diocesan cultures.

“I don’t think there’s any way to take the risk out of something,” Salmon said. “The best we can do is put competent people in place to work for the Church.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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