The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has chosen to replace Heather Cook, the second-highest ranking official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, who was charged with driving while intoxicated, manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident after hitting bicyclist Thomas Palermo with her car on December 27, 2014.
Reverend Chilton R. Knudsen, a former bishop in the state of Maine has been chosen as Cook’s replacement. Knudsen is a highly respected author who has worked as a counselor in the field of addiction. She speaks openly about her recovery from alcoholism and hopes to use her experiences with addiction to help the community pull through this tragic incident. She will serve as second-in-command to Eugene Taylor Sutton, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland until the religious organization selects a long-term replacement for Cook. Cook resigned as bishop of Maryland on May 1, 2015.
Knudsen commented on the “heartbreaking” death of Palermo, a married father of two and the recent crisis in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, 25-year-old African American man who sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. Knudsen stated in a telephone interview that she believes that every “moment of pain and every experience of grief and loss and anger breaks up open in a way that allows new things to happen.” She also added that she is “ready to help the diocese of Maryland with this resurrection.”
Knudsen also said, “One of my commitments is to promote a clear understanding that addiction can cause people to do very terrible things,” and that “addiction by itself is not an indicator of moral inferiority.” Knudsen has long been very open about her own recovery from alcoholism and uses it as an integral part of her own ministry. She looks to use her own experience as an alcoholic in recovery as a true strength to help others in wake of such tragedy. Her own struggles with alcoholism lead her to attend an addiction treatment program in 1985. She has since then, been going through “day-to-day recovery,” she stated.
This new move on the part of the diocese is not likely to go without some questioning, says Jonathan Bernstein, a specialist in crisis management. He commented that Knudsen is someone who understands addiction and, even though replacing Cook with a former alcoholic may seem counterintuitive, that the diocese has “tackled the issues head-on, and that signals confidence.”
Knudsen has co-written two books on addiction recovery, including “So You Think You Don’t Know One: Addiction and Recovery in Clergy and Congregations,” which released in 2010, and she frequently chairs seminars on the subject. She has also addressed the clergy during the “Clergy Day on Addiction and Recovery,” which was held after Palermo’s death.
Cook had a previous DUI charge in 2010 but she did not share any information with those who elected her as suffragan bishop last year. Her blood-alcohol level in this instance was three times the legal limit and, according to police, at the time of her arrest, Cook had two bottles of liquor and marijuana in her car. The diocese officials claim they were not aware of any of the details of the arrest and would have removed her from candidacy if they had known at the time of Cook’s election.
Recent events with Cook have brought the issue of addiction to the forefront and have led the diocese to take steps to address the issue publicly. During a seminar, Knudsen spoke at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland headquarters, sharing some of the latest research on addiction with the diocese. She informed her audience that she is living proof that there is hope for those struggling with addiction.
No matter what occupation, religious background or social status a person represents, addiction can still pervade his or her life. It affects the body and mind, driving people all over the world to take harmful actions similar to those demonstrated by Cook. She is one of almost 24 million Americans who struggle with addiction and the diocese has taken steps to educate the public on the dangers of addiction.
Sovereign Health Group offers a spectrum of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for patients who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, mental health disorders and dual diagnosis conditions. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction or co-occurring mental health issues, please contact us at 888-530-4614.
Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer