Md. Episcopal Diocese Chooses Replacement For Defrocked Bishop Chilton Knudsen replaces the former bishop who is accused of killing a bicyclist while driving drunk. Renee Montagne talks to Knudsen, who has made addiction counseling a key part of her ministry.

Md. Episcopal Diocese Chooses Replacement For Defrocked Bishop

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A trial is set to begin next week for a defrocked Episcopal bishop. Heather Cook faces more than a dozen charges, including manslaughter for the hit-and-run death last year of a bicyclist in Baltimore. Prosecutors say she had a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit and that she was sending text messages at the time of the crash.


After the accident, it was revealed that leaders from the Diocese of Maryland knew Cook had been arrested for a previous DUI before she was hired as the assistant bishop. They failed to pass that information on to the committee that appointed her.

MONTAGNE: Now, the diocese has appointed a new assistant bishop, who is a recovering alcoholic. Chilton Knudsen has made addiction counseling a key part of her ministry. She took a break from a conference on clergy addiction to talk to us and said her selection was no accident.

CHILTON KNUDSEN: Renee, I'm confident that the Diocese of Maryland came looking for me because they know I'm a publicly acknowledged person in recovery. And so as an ordained person and a recovering person, I have a little palette of skills that I think are uniquely helpful in a situation like the diocese of Maryland has now.

MONTAGNE: What is your story? How did you fall into alcoholism?

KNUDSEN: My story briefly has to do with the fact that social drinking is a part of the culture we live in. And for some of us, circumstances lead us to do a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking until the active alcoholism is triggered. What motivated me to move into recovery - myself - was the fact that I was working as a parish priest with lots of people who had alcoholism, and I began to see myself in the beginning pieces of their stories.

MONTAGNE: Is there a systematic denial of the dangers of alcoholism in the clergy?

KNUDSEN: I believe there are people in the Episcopal Church who are aware that alcoholism exists. There's no denial about the fact of that. But the deeper implications of what alcoholism means in terms of people's behavior - it means if people are actively alcoholic or addicted, they are expert at covering up or at reassuring people that, oh, that was one time, but I'm fine now.

MONTAGNE: You are speaking to us from a clergy day on addiction and recovering there in Pennsylvania for, specifically, Episcopal clergy. Is this the sort of thing that you talk to them about?

KNUDSEN: Exactly. So across the church right now, diocese by diocese, we are holding these days about alcohol and drug addiction. We are now treating the issue as opportunity to learn how to really respond pastorally, in-depth. And as we teach the clergy how to ask the harder questions, they are learning. So my prediction - I guess it would be also my hope - is that the next time someone has a DUI in their history and are asked about it and the response is, oh, I'm fine now, the next set of questions will be it's good to know. We hope you understand that we will need to ask a lot more questions about this.

MONTAGNE: I think people have an idea that clergy should be better and stronger than the average layperson. So how do you mesh that expectation with the idea that clergy do indeed battle these demons?

KNUDSEN: Yes. When we look at clergy, we think of them as equally likely as anybody else to have a heart attack. I want us to think - because we know alcohol and drug addiction is a disease, it is not a moral issue, where we'd expect the clergy to somehow be exempt from one part of the human condition. It's a disease, and the clergy are subject to it at the same rates as everyone else.

MONTAGNE: Bishop Knudsen, thank you very much for joining us.

KNUDSEN: Renee, thank you for your interest and concern.

MONTAGNE: That's Chilton Knudsen. This fall, she will be the new assistant bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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