VATICAN CITY—The old line is that the Vatican thinks in centuries. None of curial officials I have interviewed actually do think in “centuries,” but in the case of the U.S. bishops' sexual-abuse policy, thinking only in terms of months was sufficient to see the flaws in the American response.

While Bishop Wilton Gregory insisted on the fundamental soundness of the Dallas policy, rejecting suggestions that it had been conceived in haste and aimed at the next news cycle, there can be no denying that the Vatican is insisting on sober second thought.

The Dallas policy—as is—has been rejected. What will be finally approved will not be the Dallas policy but a substantial modification. Because the outright rejection of such a high-profile proposal would constitute a major embarrassment for the American hierarchy, both sides here were quick to point out that the mixed commission is a cooperative process. Left unsaid is that had the Dallas policy been consistent with the principles of natural justice and canon law, no mixed commission would be necessary at all.

To give a sense of the reaction in Rome, my colleague from Reuters news—a secular, international news service—asked Bishop Gregory point-blank: “Doesn't this mean that you are being sent back to the drawing board—but this time not alone?”

It was a not-too-subtle way of suggesting that perhaps the Vatican thought the American bishops needed supervision.

That's not a fair assessment—even if the rhetoric in this scandal can get overheated.

What has happened is not unlike what happened when the Vatican judged the proposed new American lectionary unacceptable. Approval was withheld and various joint groups were formed to study different aspects of the question and reach a consensus. The Vatican does not usually say “No” to national bishops' conferences; what is usually said is “Not yet” or “Not in this form.” That, in effect, is what Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re said in his letter to Bishop Gregory.

Reading between the lines, Cardinal Re's decision tells American bishops that they cannot run roughshod over the rights of priests in order to salvage their own reputations—a hard message to take, but nonetheless one that most bishops would welcome. Bishops are priests too.

And it was American priests who played a key role in leading Rome to the decision it made.

How the Curia Works

While “the Roman Curia” is often thought of as a bastion of Italian bureaucracy, it is actually an international work force that works in an Italian ambience. Specifically, there are priests from the United States—on loan from their own American bishops—who work in almost all the major Vatican departments.

Within days of the Dallas meeting, many of those priests were already meeting to work out their objections to what the U.S. bishops adopted. Bishop James Harvey, a Milwaukee native who serves as prefect of the papal household, is also able to bring American perspectives to bear from outside official channels. The Vatican does not depend entirely on reports from the U.S. bishops for its news.

All that explains why, despite an overwhelmingly favorable vote in Dallas and intense lobbying by the U.S. bishops' leadership, the Vatican was confident that in rejecting the Dallas policy it was not out of step with the whole Church in the United States.

Bishop Gregory and Msgr. William Fay, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made what they hoped would be a secret trip to Rome in June to lobby for the Dallas policy. While the official statements from the bishops' conference's executive office indicated they were on a personal vacation, Catholic News Service—another arm of the U.S. bishops' conference—reported the truth.

But even by that time, the Vatican was getting an earful about the Dallas policy. While it met with generally positive reviews from self-styled “progressive Catholics,” commentators generally more friendly to the Vatican weighed in with stinging criticisms.

Who Rome Heard

George Weigel's book The Courage to be Catholic did not address the Dallas policy but severely indicted the U.S. bishops' handling of the whole crisis. The papal biographer's new book was received in the papal household well before it hit the bookstores.

More to the point, First ThingsEditor in Chief Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote a scathing attack on the Dallas policy, accusing the bishops of betraying the Gospel by sinning against both justice and mercy. His comments were widely circulated and favorably received among senior officials in Rome.

“I am encouraged by the response, which is both necessary and hopeful,” said Father Neuhaus of the decision to reject the Dallas policy. “Yet we will still have to see whether this will help heal the breach that has opened between priests and bishops. Feelings are very intense, and many priests feel very strongly about being betrayed. They are saying to the bishops: You are violating something that was clearly established at ordination and which you alter at great risk.”

The sense of betrayal among American priests played a key role in the Vatican's decision. One of the ironies of the sexual-abuse crisis is that American priests were able, in effect, to get a stronger hearing at the Vatican than they were from their own bishops.

“I am not unaware [of] the serious problem,” answered Bishop Gregory when asked about the damage done to the bishop-priest relationship. “This has taken its toll on that relationship, and we need to work to restore the trust that must bind a bishop to his priests, and the priests to their bishop.”

The work of the mixed commission will have that as a high priority, Bishop Gregory predicted. Which is fitting, as the breach between American bishops and American priests was a major reason that the Dallas policy was rejected and the mixed commission created.