Reservoir dogma: Pope Benedict XVI and his secretary Georg Gaenswein (right), and his personal assistant Angelo Gugel. The pope's police are coming to a diocese near you

They are the pope's police, and they are coming soon to a parish or diocese near you. Announcing plans for the inspection of "certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations", Pope Benedict said in his pastoral letter released last week that the move was intended to "assist the local church on her path of renewal".

But the decision to send in papal "heavy hitters" or enforcers reflects a far more fundamental belief at the highest levels of the Vatican that a return to its doctrinal teachings is necessary to lead the church out of its current crisis.

As senior Vatican figures, selected for their strict adherence to Rome's teachings, the people running Benedict's forthcoming "apostolic visitation" to Ireland are unlikely to tolerate much dissent from the official party line.

Fr Tom Doyle is a US-based canon law expert and campaigner on behalf of victims of clerical sexual abuse, who lost his plum job at the Vatican embassy in Washington for speaking out in 1985 about the risks to the church of failing to deal openly with the scandal of sexual abuse.

He says those chosen to come to Ireland will essentially be Vatican hardliners, picked not for their openness and willingness to listen to victims of abuse for example, but for their adherence to Church teachings on issues such as celibacy, homosexuality and female ordination.

"The Vatican gives them their instructions, what to do, and what to look for," Doyle explains. "There is no question that they will be hardliners. And they are worse now than they have ever been – than I have ever seen in my 40 years as a priest. They are hardline, very conservative, and almost paranoid I would say."

Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic agrees that Ireland's apostolic visitors will be "absolutely in line with the Vatican", and will likely see their role as about "recalibrating" the Irish church so that it gets back into line with Rome.

"The belief in Rome, and we saw it reflected in the pastoral letter, is very strongly that moral laxity is what led to child abuse," he says. "They believe that where the church lets everything drift, it allows for this moral laxity. And they will be tackling where they believe the church has gone wrong."

Kelly says the visitors will bring with them significant powers, including the ability to recommend to Pope Benedict that certain dioceses be shut down or seminaries closed.

They may even recommend that certain bishops resign their posts.

"It is very much like a visit from head office to make sure the local branch is implementing all the policies properly," he says. "And that's the problematic thing, in my view. It does nothing to challenge the culture in the Catholic church here, for example, the careerism among the current crop of bishops. A visit from Rome isn't going to change that."

The exact nature and scope of the visitation process as it will apply here remains to be finalised – Pope Benedict stated only that arrangements for the visitation will be made "in due course" – but it is expected to focus primarily on the handling of the sex abuse crisis and could begin in less than six months' time.

At the very least, it will likely involve one senior Curia Cardinal – maybe more – coming here where they will set up an office and formal administration structure.

From there, they will ask awkward questions of the Catholic church in Ireland, and will conduct site inspections of seminaries, religious orders and dioceses around the country. They will then submit their confidential findings to Rome.

This all suggests that Irish clergy and their brethren in the religious orders may have much to fear from the planned visitation, amid some suggestions that certain prelates in particular are terrified at the prospect.

An ongoing apostolic visitation of women religious in the USA serves as a possible model of how we can expect the Irish visitation to be run.

Sr Kieran Foley, spokeswoman for the US visitation, told the Sunday Tribune that it is about to commence phase three of its four-part programme, involving on-site inspections of about 25% of the congregations involved.

During its two earlier phases, it talked to leaders of religious orders and circulated a remarkably detailed questionnaire to participants (see panel, inset). Phase four will see a final report going to Rome next year.

According to Foley, the visitation is an "opportunity for congregations of women religious to share their story, their hopes and concerns."

But as in Ireland, the US visit is about far more than a neutral assessment of the religious involved. It is examining the lifestyles which some of that country's 67,000 religious sisters lead.

The man who initiated the visitation, Cardinal Franc Rode, suggested as much in a revealing interview on Vatican radio last year, when he said it was a response to "some irregularities or omissions in American religious life.

"Most of all, you could say, it involves a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and perhaps, also a certain 'feminist' spirit."

The US visitation really came about because of the Vatican's perception that the American nuns "are out of control," Fr Doyle believes.

"There is a section of the American nuns who are very conservative. But many others are not," he says. "For example, they live in apartments, don't wear habits, and are in favour of womens' rights. And the nuns won't back down.

"But those involved in the visitation don't take into consideration the good work the nuns have done. They are concerned about obedience to the doctrinal line... so they are ignoring any good they do that is questionable to the Vatican's teachings."

To date, a number of major superiors of female religious orders in the US have refused to comply with the demands of the questionnaire sent out to them last September as part of the visitation process.

It remains to be seen whether the same level of defiance of Rome will be visible when Pope Benedict's apostolic inquisitors arrive here to inspect an already beleaguered religious hierarchy.

US apostolic visitation: some key questions it asked

* How do sisters in your unit understand and express the vow and virtue of:

1) poverty? To whom are they accountable for the observance of this vow?

2) chastity? How is their consecration positively expressed?

3) obedience? To whom are sisters accountable for observance of this vow?

* If sisters live alone, in small groups, or with sisters of another institute, who exercises personal, religious authority in their regard?

* What are the procedures for dealing with matters such as: civil disobedience, criminal activity, sexual improprieties, etc?

* What is the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly from
church teaching and discipline?

* Describe how you, as a Major Superior, support and encourage your sisters to participate in daily mass and to receive the sacrament of penance frequently.

* How does the manner of dress of your sisters, as specified in the proper law of your religious institute, bear witness to your consecration, and to the dignity and simplicity of your vocation?