WHEN the well known US nun Sister Sandra Schneiders sat down at her desk to write an email to colleagues and friends early last year, she may not have expected her thoughts about apostolic visitations to be made quite so public.

In truth, the Vatican's decision to undertake a comprehensive investigation of women religious in the USA had prompted significant surprise – and no small degree of suspicion –among some of those due to be "visited".

So she perhaps spoke for many other female religious there when she noted that they could not "keep them from investigating".

"But we can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlour, not given the run of the house," she said. "When people ask questions they shouldn't ask, the questions should be answered accordingly."

The Irish Catholic church is a somewhat different beast to its US counterpart, despite a long and chequered history of links between the two.

But as the Pope prepares to send in his team of apostolic visitors to Ireland, he has yet to provide any real detail about the approach they will adopt.

As a result, members of the clergy, religious and lay people alike working at the coalface could be forgiven for sharing some of Schneiders' reservations about the potential imposition on their lives which it will entail.

Lack of information

Announcing his plans to send in his doctrinal "police" to Ireland in his pastoral letter last March, Pope Benedict revealed that it would include "certain dioceses" in Ireland as well as seminaries and religious congregations, and was intended "to assist the local church on her path of renewal".

More flesh was subsequently put on the bones of this announcement during a communiqué issued via the Vatican press office on 31 May last. It said a total of nine bishops, priests and religious would conduct the visitation, with each assigned a particular role.

The fact that the delegation includes no fewer than two cardinals and three archbishops, whose job will effectively be to assess to what extent practices and procedures here are in line with Vatican expectations, could hardly have been a clearer statement of intent from Rome. The delegation also does not include any lay member.

Exactly how the visitors will approach their work in Ireland is currently the subject of significant speculation in Irish religious circles.

In true Vatican style, and despite the fact that the supposed start date of the visitation is the autumn (which has already begun), it appears that little or no further information has been communicated to the leadership of the Irish church since last May's diktat announcing its composition.

Spokespeople for both Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of All Ireland, and his counterpart in Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, told the Sunday Tribune they were not aware of any formal "working document" having been issued by Rome outlining what the visitation will involve.

Some well placed sources suggest that there may be a formal meeting with the Pope and his visitors towards the end of September, and after he returns from what is likely to be a headline-generating visit to the UK.

Once they have been given their instructions as to the "spirit" of the visitation, it is believed the work of the visitation team will only then begin in earnest in October. It will last about a year.

Given that most of those selected as visitors have busy "day" jobs, it is thought that most will set up a semi-permanent secretariat to assist them in their work, but will only return to Ireland periodically, perhaps for one or two weeks at a time.

The paucity of further information may in part be explained by the fact that the Vatican effectively closes for business during the month of August.

But such protocols can be broken, when senior church figures have something worth communicating – a fact underlined by Archbishop Martin's impassioned (and some would say misguided) plea for the bar of Catholic/lay intellectual debate in modern Ireland to be raised, delivered in Italian at a recent gathering in Rome.

On paper at least, according to last May's Vatican press statement, the visitors will "set out to explore more deeply questions concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the victims; they will monitor the effectiveness of and seek possible improvements to the current procedures for preventing abuse".

But this apostolic visitation is about much more than just the clerical abuse scandal which has so traumatised the people of Ireland.

It is being driven and directed by Benedict himself, meaning any further information is expected to emanate directly from Rome, thereby bypassing the Irish leadership which he so explicitly criticised in his pastoral letter.

Brother Edmund Garvey is a member of the management team of the Christian Brothers here. He is acutely aware that many of his members are, for the most part, now in their mid 70s or older.

Like his bishop counterparts, he too is unaware of exactly when the apostolic visitation will commence, or precisely how the visitors will approach their work.

He knows from last May's announcement that it will involve the sending out of a questionnaire to the superiors of all religious institutes here "with a view to providing an accurate picture of the current situation and formulating plans for the observance and improvement of the norms contained in the 'guidelines'".

The second "phase", will see the apostolic visitors carrying out a "careful study, evaluating the results obtained from the questionnaire and the possible steps to be taken in the future in order to usher in a season of spiritual rebirth for religious life on the Island".

Yet Garvey is unsure about the usefulness of such a visitation at this stage in the evolution of the Irish Catholic church, pointing out that it has already been subjected to significant official scrutiny and self examination in recent years.

"We really do need to get a lot of people from right across the spectrum of Christian society in Ireland talking about what does it mean to be a Christian in society today. But certainly a lot of the religious orders I know of, and I would include ourselves in that, would have done a lot of soul searching," he says. "We're in a really different place now. So I suppose what we need is to see what exactly it is they are looking for from this."

Fr Adrian Egan, head of the Redemptorist order in Limerick, recently expressed more fundamental concerns about the visitation, noting that such probes have a history of being oppressive.

Referring to the USA visitation, he said this included examining an order of nuns there who were ministering to gays and lesbians.

"With other cases also my sense has been that they move in, almost inquisition like, and if there is any modern thinking, any challenging of church teaching going on, it seems to be quashed," he said.

Such views are shared by other influential figures in the Irish Catholic establishment.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one suggests there is a strong suspicion among religious here that the visitation is an initiative which has been undertaken in the mistaken belief that it is possible to return to some kind of previous Catholic "Nirvana" where the Vatican "has all the answers".

The 'wounded healers'

But despite what Pope Benedict might believe, such a place has never existed, they point out.

"If they throw their weight around, then people here will look at it as people from Canada, the USA etc coming here and telling us what to do. And they will see a real lack of respect and will resent this," they explain. "The church needs to listen much more carefully to people and the voices which are not in the power structures here."

Should they adopt such a "listening" approach, then there is even some prospect of the visitation being a success, the theologian Gina Menzies believes.

"If they did that, and their findings were made public – then I think it would go some way towards outlining a new strategy for the church," she says. "But if they come and things are done in secret, and then they leave and just report the findings to Rome, well then, they may just as well not come."

Serious questions remain about why the Pope chose these particular visitors to inspect a deeply demoralised and beleaguered Irish church.

The fact that all of those selected have Irish ancestry (and mostly Irish surnames), suggests that the Vatican may be conscious of the particular sensitivities of the culture in which they will be operating.

But there may also be deeper reasons why some of the visitors have been selected, centring around the Pope's concern to show "fraternal solidarity" with those who may not welcome having their dioceses inspected.

During a recent address to Irish priests in Maynooth, for example, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor delivered a particularly telling line, where he referred to himself as a "wounded healer" who had been "attacked and vilified for nearly two years" over his own mishandling of the case of a notorious abuser, Fr Michael Hill, in 1985.

The use of this particular phrase by the retired archbishop of Westminster will hardly have gone unnoticed by the man whose archdiocese Murphy-O'Connor has been charged with investigating – Cardinal Seán Brady – given that he is himself a just such a self-confessed "wounded healer".

There are some similarities too between Diarmuid Martin and his visitor, Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, who replaced Cardinal Bernard F Law as archbishop of Boston after the latter resigned amid strong criticism of his failure to remove abusive priests from their positions.

Despite Martin's recent troubles, both are now seen as key Catholic church experts when it comes to addressing the problem of clerical sexual abuse, and are said to have a good personal relationship.

Meanwhile, abuse groups both in the UK and US have also questioned the child protection records of Murphy-O'Connor – for the reasons outlined above – as well as O'Malley and a third visitor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. He will lead the visitation of the Irish seminaries, including the Pontifical Irish College in Rome.

Barbara Dorris, of the US-based Snap (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), argues that both Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Dolan had "troubling track records on abuse".

"Just a few years ago Boston's O'Malley was found in violation of the US bishops' sex abuse policy for refusing to make sure that all parishes were offering abuse training," she said. "And [Archbishop] Dolan let a priest sue his accuser in St Louis and fought against reforming Wisconsin child sex abuse laws."

Hostile move

Elsewhere in her email to her fellow religious last year, Sr Schneiders expressed her belief that the apostolic visitation of the USA, which is ongoing, was "not mutual and it is not a dialogue".

"The investigators are not coming to understand… I do not put any credence at all in the claim that this is friendly, transparent, aimed to be helpful, etc. It is a hostile move and the conclusions are already in. It is meant to be intimidating," she wrote. "So let's be honest but reserved, supply no ammunition that can be aimed at us."

Such cautionary words may understandably be taken to heart by others within the Irish Catholic church as they prepare for the arrival of their religious superiors this coming autumn.