Maryland diocese chooses replacement for deposed bishop

By Jonathan Pitts
Baltimore Sun
May 12, 2015

The Right Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, the assistant bishop of the Diocese of Long Island, who was named over the weekend as the new assistant bishop of the Diocese of Maryland, replacing Heather Elizabeth Cook, who recently resigned as bishop suffragan.

To replace the bishop accused of driving drunk and killing a bicyclist in Roland Park last year, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has chosen a retired bishop who has made her own recovery from alcoholism central to her ministry.

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, head of the Maryland diocese, announced the Rt. Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen — a former bishop of Maine, and a widely respected author and counselor in the field of addiction recovery — as assistant bishop at the church's annual convention Saturday in Ellicott City.

Knudsen, who has roots in Maryland, will be Sutton's second-in-command until the diocese selects a long-term replacement for Cook, who resigned as bishop suffragan of Maryland on May 1.

Cook, 58, faces charges including manslaughter, homicide by a motor vehicle while impaired, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, drunken driving and texting while driving in the Dec. 27 death of Thomas Palermo. She has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to return to court next month.

Knudsen, 68, says she sees the "heartbreaking" death of Palermo, a married father of two who was well known in the local cycling community, and the recent unrest in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray as tragedies that, while devastating, can, with prayer, serve as catalysts for change.

"In my very devoted Christian heart, I believe that every … moment of pain and every experience of grief and loss and anger breaks us open in a way that allows new things to happen," she said in a telephone interview Monday. "I believe God can bring beautiful things out of awful things.

"I'm ready to help the Diocese of Maryland be part of that resurrection."

Some saw her selection as bold, given the role alcohol is alleged to have played in the fatal crash.

Jonathan Bernstein, a specialist in crisis management, said it made public relations sense, even if at first glance it seems counterintuitive.

"I certainly think the church has got to anticipate questions, but this is someone who has been through the wringer and come back out again, and if there's anyone who understands this issue, it's someone like [Knudsen]," he said.

"[The diocese] could have ducked the issue [of alcoholism], but sometimes taking the safe route is not the best PR. They tackled the issue head-on, and that signals confidence."

Knudsen has long been open about her own struggles with alcoholism, which led her to enter a treatment program in 1985. She has been in "day-to-day recovery" since then, she said, and those who know her say she has turned the crisis into a long-term strength.

She 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 appeared in 2010 to positive reviews, and frequently chairs seminars on the subject.

Her efforts included an appearance in Baltimore in March, when she addressed lay and clerical members of the diocese with a "Clergy Day on Addiction and Recovery," held in the aftermath of Palermo's death.

Cook was elected bishop suffragan of Maryland last year. The diocese came under criticism after it emerged that a search committee that vetted Cook knew she had been arrested on a DUI charge in 2010 but did not share that information with the electors who voted on her candidacy.

Cook's blood-alcohol level was measured at more than three times the legal limit at the time of her 2010 arrest, police said, and she had marijuana and two bottles of liquor in her car. Diocesan officials have said they knew none of the details surrounding that arrest during their search and would have eliminated Cook as a candidate if they had.

Both the national church and the Maryland diocese have taken steps this year to address the subject of addiction publicly.

The Rt. Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of one of the two governing bodies of the national church, wrote in a letter to church offficials of its "systemic denial about alcohol and other drug abuse" and appointed a committee to review church policy on the subject.

Sutton later apologized in an open letter to his diocese for failing to appreciate the complexity of addiction. He promised to educate himself and others in the church more fully.

Knudsen became part of that process in March when she offered the seminar at the diocese's headquarters on University Parkway.

More than 300 people attended the session, in which Knudsen says she shared some of the latest research on recovery, told her audience she's a living reminder that there's hope, and cautioned listeners that processing a tragedy like Palermo's death takes time and proceeds through stages.

Sutton did not comment for this article. Spokesman Dan Webster said the response to Knudsen's presentation was overwhelmingly positive — one of the many reasons he said his boss is pleased with her appointment.

"I think Bishop Sutton would have said that there's probably no one else in the Episcopal Church better qualified to minister in our diocese after the events of Dec. 27," he said.

Knudsen has been in successful recovery for so long, Webster said, that he'd be "surprised" to learn that Sutton or others involved in the appointment even discussed whether her alcoholism could become a problem in her new job.

Most who commented on her appointment were enthusiastic about it, including the Rt. Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, a former bishop of Maryland who has criticized the national church for taking more than four months to defrock Cook.

"I have known Bishop Knudsen throughout her episcopacy and consider her one of the leading bishops of the Episcopal Church — an excellent choice!" he said in email.

Indeed, most said her expertise would very likely become a strength in her new job.

"Given what sounds like the state of her recovery, I think she's at a lower risk [of difficulties] than the average person would be," said Dr. Benjamin Carey, a lifelong Episcopalian and a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. "She knows how recovery works. She's likely to have special insight in this area."

Carey, of Virginia Beach, Va., was an outspoken critic of the Maryland diocese after Palermo's death, arguing that it didn't do enough to ensure that Cook remained in recovery after the 2010 incident.

Nate Evans, the president of Bike Maryland, a bicycle advocacy group that helped lead a commemorative ride for Palermo in January, said the hire shows the diocese has carefully considered just how it needs to reform.

He wasn't prepared to comment as a cycling community leader, he said, but as a Christian, he was enthusiastic.

"I think it's great that the church recognizes that this problem exists and that they're putting someone in that position who can reach a lot of people who were probably unreachable," Evans said. "This opens up a great ministry opportunity for the Episcopal Church."

Knudsen was the top bishop in the Diocese of Maine from 1997 to 2008, and is currently assistant bishop of the Diocese of Long Island.

The daughter of a Navy officer, Knudsen lived for a time in Annapolis. She had grandparents in Hagerstown, and her husband is from Baltimore — all of which makes the move feel like "a homecoming," she said.

Her appointment was approved by the diocese's standing committee — its board of trustees. She said the job — her fourth interim appointment since she retired from the Maine position — will be the last of her career.

She will start sometime this fall, after she and her husband move from Bath, Maine, their home for the past 18 years. The diocese has not set a timetable for electing a new bishop suffragan.

Knudsen relishes the challenge, she said, in part because she has long admired Maryland as a diocese that "has a lot of variety, a lot of natural beauty, and plenty of talented clergy who are devoted to their ministries."

What it faces, she said, is not unlike what she has gone through for the past 30 years.

"I believe [the diocese's] leaders, its clergy, its bishops and its members will be part of what it means to be a recovering diocese, and I don't mean that in a way that's limited to addiction," she said. "Recovery and renewal are part of the Christian journey."



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