Fatal drunk driving accident prompts reexamination of attitudes, policies toward alcohol

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Dion Thompson
M. Dion Thompson

Tragedy demands a response. It forces us to confront issues and sheds light on situations long-hidden or ignored.

For the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, the tragedy in question happened last December when a car driven by then-bishop Heather Cook struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo in Baltimore, Maryland.

The accident sent shock waves throughout the Episcopal Church. People grappled with questions about the church’s attitudes towards alcoholism, recovery and addiction.

Newspaper and police reports revealed a troubling background. Cook, who had previously been arrested for driving under the influence, is awaiting trial on charges of vehicular manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, texting while driving and other violations. She has since resigned her position and been deposed.

“I think there comes a tipping point where something happens and an event is so tragic that people say, ‘Wow. We really need to think about this and do something,’” said Jennings. “I don’t see how the church could have ignored it. And all I can say is that I could not have ignored it. And I’m in a position to do something about it.”

After a series of phone calls, Legislative Committee 22 – Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse – came into being. The 39-member committee, whose members include bishops, clergy and lay leaders, is charged with reviewing and possibly updating the Church’s policies toward addiction as expressed in resolution 1985-A083. That resolution was approved 30 years ago.

The world has changed. In 1985, Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned and apartheid was standing strong in South Africa. You couldn’t buy a laptop, but you could buy New Coke, though that only lasted six months. You couldn’t make a cell phone call. If you had a computer, you could load it up with the latest program, Windows 1.0.

Attitudes towards addiction and recovery have undergone similarly dramatic changes. Underage drinking, binge drinking on college campuses, food addictions, prescription drug addictions and other destructive behaviors are on the public radar as never before. Twelve-step programs are everywhere.

“We know a lot more about the disease of addiction, gambling addiction, sex addiction. It’s like we’re light years away from where we were 30 years ago,” said the Very Rev. Steven L. Thomason of the Diocese of Olympia, who chairs the committee along with the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr., bishop of the Diocese of Ohio.

Many of the committee members have expertise in the area of addiction, or have experienced the ravages of the disease in their families. Thomason is a doctor who specialized in family medicine and hospice care. Jennings traces her interest to her coursework during her seminary years at the Episcopal Divinity School. The Rev. Canon Scott Slater of the Diocese of Maryland has lost a father and a nephew to alcoholism.

Slater came on board after noticing that an Episcopal Relief & Development fundraiser scheduled for General Convention was advertising a beer tasting event as one of the prizes. That seemed to be a technical violation of the 1985 policy, said Slater. Advertising for the event has since been changed.

Slater’s concern was part of a growing awareness that has taken hold. In Maryland, board members of the Bishop Claggett Center decided not to have alcohol served at the retirement celebration of the center’s long-time executive director. The Rt. Rev. J. Scott Barker of Nebraska has publicly stated that he will not drink alcohol during General Convention. Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church will be handing out “No Thank You” buttons to those wishing to abstain from alcohol or who want to show their support.

And, there will be an ice cream social sponsored by the Diocese of Maryland. Slater said the event gives the diocese a chance “to model opportunities for gathering together socially in the church in a way that doesn’t involve alcohol. We simply want to model a different way of gathering in the evening.”

Some of the committee’s early work has involved taking a broad look at addiction and recovery and how the church supports its members, lay and clergy. Also being considered is addiction’s devastating effect on the social fabric and how the church can improve its response.

“It’s a much bigger deal than people often realize,” Slater said. “My personal, long-term hope is that the issues of addiction and recovery are more broadly known and understood as public health and social justice issues.”

Raising awareness is complicated. Addiction does not happen in a vacuum. There are enablers. There are people who know, but choose to look away or say nothing. Sometimes a sense of helplessness prevents action. Then, tragedy strikes.

Cook’s case became international news, but only because of her profile. During the spring, the Rev. Diane Reiners, an associate priest at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, was arrested for driving while intoxicated after she was seen driving erratically in the Holland Tunnel that connects New York City to New Jersey.

“Clergy are particularly shamed when it comes to being able to talk publicly,” said Slater, who was one of the first people Cook called after her accident. “It’s much harder for a clergy person because of the perceived double-standard.”

Open conversation is needed as well as a certain mindfulness about how alcohol use permeates our social gatherings, Thomason said. For example, he said, it is not uncommon at a reception to find the bar at the front of the room and the non-alcoholic table off in a far corner.

“That’s not equal presentation, and we have to mindful of that,” he said. “I think that we’re in a moment in time in which we have the broad attention of the Church in a way that we might be able to affect some changes, so that a couple of years from now we are more mindful of how we use alcohol and have a heightened sense of awareness and compassion.”

Jennings said she hopes the committee’s work results in new policies and directions, and that its influence extends beyond the hard, legislative work that lies ahead.

“I want our clergy to be educated in this and our lay leaders,” she said “It’s not only a problem to be solved. It’s also an opportunity for the deepest kind of pastoral ministry.”

The Rev. M. Dion Thompson is a clergy deputy from the Diocese of Maryland and a member of the legislative committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Church Music. He was previously a reporter for the Hartford Courant, the Miami Herald and the Baltimore Sun. Thompson is the author of the novel Walk Like a Natural Man.