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Stunning gap in Sun story on new cardinal

One of the major religion events of this past weekend, obviously, was the Vatican rite at which Pope Benedict XVI created 22 new cardinals, including two from the United States. In terms of standard-issue news on the big-city religion beat, having your city's archbishop join the college of cardinals is a mucho big deal. At the very least, it's the kind of thing that requires the writing of a full-career feature story about the man, with a heavy emphasis on the work that he did to earn this nod from the Vatican.

The other day, I noted that then Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City held his own when The New York Times served up its pre-red-hat feature. That fine story offered a combination of attributed material from a number of different sources -- including radio broadcasts, public sermons and interviews.

The other U.S. archbishop-turned-cardinal was Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore, who currently is in a transition between his work in the nation's oldest Catholic archdiocese and a global-level slot in the Vatican hierarchy. This means, of course, a major story in The Baltimore Sun. The result was utterly and totally predictable, other than one or two glaring oddities. Here is the top of the feature:

Even as he prepared in Rome for the weekend ceremony that will elevate him to cardinal, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien vigorously lobbied for political issues important to the Roman Catholic Church -- a hallmark of his five-year stint here.

The vocal 72-year-old O'Brien -- who has been the spiritual leader of Catholics in Baltimore and nine surrounding counties -- has sparred with the likes of President Barack Obama and top Maryland lawmakers. He didn't always succeed, but he pressed on, as he has on a number of highly charged issues.

Last month, O'Brien decried a proposed federal regulation from the Obama administration that would have required Catholic hospitals and universities, among other institutions, to provide employee health insurance that covered contraception.

In recent days, the O'Brien went head-to-head with Gov. Martin O'Malley, a fellow Catholic, over the elected leader's support for legalizing same-sex marriage. O'Brien called several state lawmakers from Rome, urging them to oppose the measure, in the hours before a crucial Friday night vote moved the measure closer to becoming law. And in one of his most criticized moves locally, O'Brien made the budget-minded decision to close 13 Catholic schools in the spring of 2010, frustrating students and parents.

Now, here is your assignment: Name a major American city in which each of these points -- to one degree or another -- would not apply to the work of a Pope Benedict XVI-era prelate.

As this standard-duty article rolls on, it becomes pretty clear that the Sun team faced a major problem. The bottom line: A key voice is missing from this feature. Whose?

Pope Benedict XVI could name his successor in Baltimore as early as March, O'Brien said last month. He has been traveling between Rome and Baltimore, working two jobs since August, and did not respond to interview requests for this article.

Ouch. Frankly, that is amazing. I may be wrong, but this gap has to say something about the archbishop's attitude toward the Sun, a newspaper that never uses a fly swatter when a baseball bat will do when it comes time to cooperate with and-or to promote the views of local Catholic dissidents. O'Brien is no arch conservative, but to this newspaper he is, clearly, a fundamentalist.

Still, O'Brien preaches sermons all the time that could have been quoted in this story. He writes, too. While he declined to be interviewed, it would have been easy to find ways to feature his voice as a balancing element in this all politics, all the time report. It's even possible that there are religious, faith-based themes in his work that could have been included. Then again, apparently not.

The Sun team did manage to reach out to a global-level expert -- who promptly pointed them in the right direction (should the editors be interested in knowing more about why Rome honored this man). They turned to Rocco Palmo of Whispers Inside The Loggia. And what did he have to say?

Palmo, who has sources in the Holy See and broke the news of O'Brien's new appointment, said the O'Brien's strong leadership style likely contributed to his elevation and transfer to Rome, where he is expected to take on additional assignments for the pope.

"O'Brien's always been given sensitive assignments by the Vatican," Palmo said, pointing to O'Brien's role as the head of an in-depth study into all U.S. seminaries, to root out the potential origins of child abuse by Catholic clergy.

"I wouldn't be surprised if O'Brien were called in as a troubleshooter for the Vatican, in addition to his day job," Palmo said.

Ah, the study of the seminaries. That would be a key starting point, since it is hard to have Catholic churches without priests.

It is at this point that the Sun, once again, looks away from a major story that has been sitting in its own backyard for several decades. You see, Baltimore happens to be the home of one of North America's most famous, or infamous, seminaries and one of the first things that O'Brien -- the former leader of America's Catholic military archdiocese -- did when he came to town was attempt to change the culture a bit at St. Mary's Seminary. All you have to do to learn more about that situation is type "Baltimore," "seminary" and "Pink Palace" into a search engine.

Palmo did his best to underline the obvious, but it was not enough.

Basically, this Sun news feature centered on the elements of O'Brien's tenure in Baltimore that the newspaper had, in the past, deigned to cover. One can ask (I just did) whether the actual O'Brien was missing from that earlier coverage, just as he was -- by his own choice -- missing from this pre-red-hat feature.

PHOTO: Cardinal Edwin O'Brien (left) and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, rocking the red.

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