Early Thoughts on the Arrest of Fr. Rian Adams — Heather Cook Revisited?

Fr. Rian Adams, from his now-closed Twitter account

One of the things I love about being Episcopal is it’s never a dull day in the church. This weekend is no exception, with the news media abuzz with the arrest of Fr. Rian Adams, rector of Calvary Episcopal in Fletcher NC. The news follows allegations that Adams pulled a semi-automatic weapon during an incident of road rage along the Florida turnpike.

Before going further, it’s important to remember that we are only hearing one side of the story. Adams is presumed innocent, both as a matter of canon and criminal law, until found guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. Further, we have scant information on the conduct of the persons in the other vehicle; if, for example, they pulled a weapon first, Adams’ response may be seen in a different light.

That said, this is a case that warrants both a fast response by the diocese and a thorough, deliberate response. And this may be our chance to heed the lessons learned from the Heather Cook case. In the Cook case, Tom Palermo, a young father, was killed by the bishop suffragen of Maryland, Heather Cook, who was driving under the influence, and texting while driving, when she struck and killed Palermo. Cook later resigned her holy orders, and now is imprisoned. Subsequently, it was learned that Cook had a previous arrest for DUI, but the matter was largely swept under the rug by the committee that selected Cook prior to her consecration.

Apropos responding rapidly, I have not yet seen anything from the church or the diocese about the news. Both need to recognize that news of this sort can be profoundly unsettling in the context of a family system. I know this firsthand, having myself walked into church on a weekday only to discover that the rector had been in a serious accident the night before and was in ICU. Having served as a police officer, I am better in crisis than most, but the experience was not pleasant, to say the least.

So, if it has not already done so, the diocese needs to immediately issue a statement of support for the people of Calvary. It also should be prepared to have “boots on the ground,” when the parish meets this Sunday. 

Of course, behind the scenes there needs to be an immediate assessment as to whether Adams is a threat to himself or others. This takes time, and it may well be best that supply clergy officiate this Sunday, so that the focus may be on divine worship, versus the news story. Meanwhile, persons in the parish need to know that they will be loved, cared for, and accepted, regardless of the outcome, and that Adams and his family will be treated in the same manner. Expectations also need to be managed; if Adams is struggling with mental health issues or must be removed from ministry for this or other reasons, members of the parish may never get the full story. But that does not mean that they are not loved and cared for as the body of Christ, or that Adams has been treated unfairly.

It’s also important, if there is a parish meeting this weekend, that it be done separate from divine worship. Some of those affected by Adams’ behavior may not be ready to attend such a meeting, but instead be struggling with their own anger or hurt. They must be treated with respect and allowed to deal with things in their own way, and at their own pace.

The diocese also should be placing in motion a Title IV disciplinary case, with the understanding that, at this juncture, the emphasis should be on healing. This must be a slow, careful, methodical process, and one where the diocese is very careful to do no harm. 

Specifically, there are hints that Adams may face his own challenges–challenges that need outside support if he is to deal with them successfully. Consider:

  • Adams served as chaplain to a special forces unit of the US military, and appears to have served in several high-risk areas, including Afghanistan. Thus, the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder must be considered, as it is endemic among those who have been in combat.
  • Adams appears to have left the military after suffering a serious injury in a helicopter crash. This again raises the possibility of PTSD or other psychological trauma.
  • His first civilian position, rector of a parish on St. Simon’s Island, lasted only a year. While there may be many valid reasons for this, it’s atypical, and warrants exploration.

In this space, it is vitally important that the diocese pull in outside mental health experts early on. My experience is that most clergy, including ajudicatories, have zero training in this space, and often fail to recognize even facially obvious signs of personality disorders and other major pathologies. That’s understandable in many ways, as the best clergy are empaths, and feel compassion towards those who struggle. Thus, it may be difficult for diocesan officials to accurately assess signs of psychological morbidity.

There may be another wrinkle to this, which is that this event may be nothing more than one of the challenges that chaplains and other military personal face when they return to civilian life. While we may cringe to learn that Adams allegedly pulled a semi-automatic weapon on others, this would not be an inappropriate response for military in a combat zone. Thus, Adams may need help unlearning habits acquired in the military. At the same time, one must remember that narcissists and those suffering from antisocial personality disorder often respond in over-the-top ways when challenged, so it is possible that the underlying issue is far less benign.

On a larger scale, there also must be an element of discernment in all of this. I have known far too many clergy who have no real calling for the job, but instead seemingly fell into it because they didn’t know what else to do, wanted to avoid the Viet Nam draft, or myriad other unhealthy reasons. And all too often, ajudicatories overlook these foundational issues. But it is fair for all to ask, “Is somone who is possibly prepared to shoot and kill another human being over his or her driving someone who recognizes that we are all made in the image of the divine? Is this a warning sign that this person should not be a priest?”

That leads me to analogies with the Heather Cook case. While it is important to remember that this may be a single, isolated case of bad behavior, so too may this also be a warning sign of larger, darker issues. Recall that, prior to killing Palermo, Cook had been arrested for driving under the influence. Sadly, this was largely brushed off as a single, one-off encounter with the law. Had diocesan officials dug deeper, however, anecdotal evidence, including comments in the social media from past parishioners decribing alleged prior incidents of DUI in conjunction with parish events (which I have personally seen on Facebook) would have suggested that a much larger problem was afoot.

What is truly troubling is that the one set of comments on Facebook that I uncovered was written by a young woman who described how Cook had driven her, and a friend, home from a parish youth event when they were teens. Cook allegedly was so intoxicated that she repeatedly ran her car into the curb, denting the rims and flattening one or more tires. Yet this information seemingly never went anywhere. This, I believe, was most likely due to fear of retribution by the teens, or the belief that no one would take them seriously. Even in my own encounter with a case of clergy misconduct, diocesan officials initially brushed me off and knowingly permitted the clergyperson in question to engage in a multi-year campaign of harassment and shunning using church resources before they finally agreed to get involved. So I know firsthand just how perilous it is to blow the whistle in clergy discipline cases.

Diocesan officials thus should make it clear to all involved that if anyone has information that suggests Adams has larger issues, they should immediately bring it to the attention of the diocese, and will not suffer retribution for doing so. Or, in the words of the Title IV training materials provided by the College for Bishops, people should know whom to contact, even if something just doesn’t seem right. It must be safe for all persons touched by this situation to participate in the discussion and discernment that ensues.

In short, while a punitive response may or may not be warranted, there’s enough here to warrant very careful scrutiny. At the same time, diocesan and parish officials must respond quickly to assure all involved that they will be loved and cared for, no matter what the future may hold. This may well be the Heather Cook situation revisited, and it is imperative that we get it right this time.

Over time, my further hope is that situations such as this will result in general convention adding whistleblower protections to Title IV. Matters such as this require access to multiple data points, and there should be formal protections at all levels of the church to protect those who speak up, while recognizing that those who do so may well be speaking out of love and concern for all involved, versus for improper motives.

With my heartfelt prayers and sympathy for all. May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you in the knowledge and love of Christ.

About Eric Bonetti

I’m a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids’ cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I’m also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.

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