From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Former treasurer will be released soon

Date 27 Nov 2000 13:17:59


Former treasurer will be released soon

by Ed Stannard

     (Episcopal Life) Former church treasurer Ellen F. Cooke, convicted in 1995 
of embezzling $2 million from the Episcopal Church, is now confined at home and 
will be released from federal custody on January 1, 2001.

     Richard Russell, executive assistant at the Federal Prison Camp for Women in 
Alderson, W.Va., told Episcopal Life that Cooke was transferred to a halfway 
house in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 6 and transferred to home confinement on 
October 2. She is still considered to be under the jurisdiction of the federal 
prison system until her final release.

     The Rev. Margo Maris of Portland, Oregon, who has acted as a pastor to Cooke 
during her time in prison, said Cooke was given "good time" to reduce her five-
year term. "Apparently, what they [prison officials] do is they look at some sort 
of standard ... sort of like the reasonable man or reasonable woman standard, and 
then they look at behavior in prison."

     Russell said that "the maximum amount of time that we would typically put 
someone in [a halfway house] would be six months and that's based on a lot of 
different circumstances."

     Cooke, who will turn 57 on December 31, had been incarcerated at Alderson 
since she was convicted January 24, 1996, for embezzlement, transferring stolen 
money across state lines and tax evasion. She pleaded guilty to the charges in 
federal court and was sentenced to a five-year term, which was to begin August 
26, 1996. The church later recovered all but about $100,000 from the sale of 
Cooke's home in Montclair, New Jersey, a farm in Lancaster, Virginia, and 
personal property, as well as from insurance claims and settlements with 
commercial institutions.

     Cooke served as treasurer of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society -- 
the national church's corporate body -- and of General Convention from 1986 until 
January 1995, when she was asked to resign by former Presiding Bishop Edmond L. 
Browning. The embezzlement was discovered one month later.

     Cooke reportedly used the stolen money for jewelry, to lavishly furnish her 
homes and to pay for her sons' private school tuition.

     Cooke's original sentence was longer than federal guidelines call for, but 
U.S. District Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, noting that she rarely ordered stiffer 
sentences, said at the time that the circumstances of Cooke's case "scream for" a 
longer sentence.

     "This defendant deliberately and meticulously, and with knowledge then and 
now, looted the national church over a period of years with one reason and one 
reason only -- to live the life of someone she was not," Barry said during 

     Barry had received a letter signed by seven national church officials, 
including Browning and Pamela P. Chinnis, then president of the House of 
Deputies, citing the negative effects Cooke's embezzlement had brought on the 
church. The letter stated that "our ability to provide ministry has been hampered 
by this violation of trust."

     Browning declined to comment on Cooke's imminent release.

     Cooke appealed the sentence -- though not her conviction -- but was not 
successful. Her attorney, Plato Cacheris of Washington, did not return phone 
calls for this story.

     Maris said her relationship with Cooke has been "costly" to her. She runs a 
small Christian-education program in Portland and also has served as pastor to 
the complainant in the sexual-misconduct case against Montana Bishop C.I. Jones. 
She said she has tried to keep a low profile and will become "even more 
invisible" once the Jones case is resolved.

     "I have learned a tremendous amount," Maris said of her relationship with 
Cooke. "It has made me more faithful. I'm not complaining, but I just have 
learned a lot more than I ever thought I would."

     When Cooke pleaded guilty in January 1996, she told the judge, "I must have 
done it," but testified that she could not remember the crimes, which included 
redirecting church deposits into personal bank accounts. Cacheris told the court 
that Cooke suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and cyclothymia, a bipolar 
mental disorder that causes her to "black out certain events that happened in the past."
     In a statement just after the embezzlement was discovered in 1995, Cooke had 
claimed she suffered from "pain, abuse and powerlessness" from working in a 
"male-dominated" church hierarchy.
     Cooke's husband, Nicholas T. Cooke III, was rector of St. Luke's Episcopal 
Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and accepted a call in McLean, Virginia, when 
his wife resigned. He later resigned his orders and reportedly opened a bookstore 
in Richmond, Virginia.

--Ed Stannard is news editor of Episcopal Life, the national newspaper of the 
Episcopal Church.

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