Pope Francis will meet the leadership of the U.S. bishops Thursday to discuss how the entire McCarrick affair will be investigated — an investigation that will be unprecedented in mode and scope with global implications.

The timing suggests that Pope Francis is beginning a new phase of his response, similar to the dramatic steps he took in January after his disastrous apostolic visit to Chile ratcheted up pressure for action on sexual abuse in that country.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been seeking a papal audience regarding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, even publicly expressing his “eagerness” — code for frustration over how long it was taking — for such a meeting Aug. 27. After delaying for nearly two months, Pope Francis has granted the audience at a time that requires Cardinal DiNardo to miss the USCCB executive committee meetings in Washington. Those meetings are dedicated to preparing the U.S. response to the scandal, which will be discussed at the bishops’ plenary meeting in November.

It is clear that the Vatican is shifting into higher gear. On Monday it was announced that a response of some sort would be forthcoming to the allegations made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in his “testimony.” On Wednesday, it was announced that Pope Francis would convene a meeting of the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences from around the world, a sort of “synod” on sexual abuse, in February 2019.

What will Cardinal DiNardo be asking the Holy Father to do? There are three key questions.

Who will investigate?

Cardinal DiNardo has stated that, “one way or another, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.” He committed the USCCB Aug. 1 to “pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the bishops’ conference will advocate with those who do have the authority.”

On Aug. 16, Cardinal DiNardo clarified that this required the Vatican to authorize “an apostolic visitation to address these questions, in concert with a group of predominantly laypeople identified for their expertise by members of the National Review Board and empowered to act.”

Apostolic visitations are not rare, as they are orchestrated by the Holy See when there are serious matters that need investigation and reform. After the 2002 scandals, an apostolic visitation was conducted of all American seminaries. After the 2010 crisis in Ireland, an apostolic visitation was conducted of the Irish archdioceses and seminaries. The Legionaries of Christ were visited after the revelations about their founder, Father Marcial Maciel.

Apostolic visitations are conducted by bishops authorized by the Holy See. The visitors have collaborators, often priests and other experts, but it is a bishop-led process.

How will the U.S. investigation, promised by the bishops to be largely composed of laypeople, be organized? Would the Holy See agree to a lay investigatory board with a bishop liaison? A bishop adviser? A bishop supervisor?

There are many demands that the investigatory board be “independent.” Independent of the Holy See? Apostolic visitations are commissioned by the Holy See and report to it.

Will the Holy See determine the terms of reference? Would it even be possible for the Holy See to establish a visitation and allow the visitors to set their own terms of reference?

It is quite possible to imagine that there is general agreement to “find the truth,” but divergences between Rome and Cardinal DiNardo on who will be commissioned to do it.

What will the investigators see?

Even before Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, which made references to specific meetings and memoranda, a key question for any investigator would be the scope of its authority to see confidential documents. Archbishop Viganò spoke of a McCarrick file “this thick” at the Congregation for Bishops. Any investigation that was not granted access to that file would not be credible. The same would apply to files at the apostolic nunciature in Washington.

The implications of making those documents available are not limited to the McCarrick case. Just this week, the Archdiocese of Santiago suggested to civil authorities in Chile that prosecutors request the Vatican turn over files on their most notorious abuser priest, Fernando Karadima. The Holy See has to consider the wider implications of granting access to documents regarding Archbishop McCarrick. As a retired and resigned cardinal, he is of little significance. But other situations will be of greater import.

A normal apostolic visitation has access to all sorts of confidential documents because the visitor himself is bound by the pontifical secret. Will that also apply to a lay board? Lay investigators are quite capable of keeping confidences. That’s not the issue. The concern is that the next request for access may not come from brother bishops, but a hostile, even persecuting, government. Finding the right balance will be a delicate matter.

An equally important matter is to whom the investigators will speak. Will senior Vatican officials, current and retired, meet with the investigators? Archbishop Viganò’s “testimony” is reckless in mentioning dozens of people, but makes some pertinent and specific claims about a few. Will those named be asked for their own version of events? An apostolic visitation that interviews former cardinal secretaries of state would truly be unprecedented.

What will be published?

Closely tied to the issue of access is the public nature of the eventual report. The demand for transparency is so high that any credible report must be published. But what will it publish?

Certainly the trail of allegations and settlements regarding Archbishop McCarrick will be thoroughly aired. But if someone wrote to the nunciature giving his frank assessment of McCarrick’s general strengths and shortcomings, would that be part of a public record? That is not related directly to the question of sexual abuse, but would at least be interesting to understanding McCarrick’s rise. Is general interest sufficient reason to divulge confidential consultations?

For example, Archbishop Viganò makes claims about McCarrick’s role in the appointments of Cardinal Blase Cupich in Chicago and Cardinal Joseph Tobin in Newark, New Jersey. Should the appointment files of those, or others, be published? Good arguments can be made both in favor and against investigating and publishing such material. Who will make that decision?

That an investigation will proceed is not in doubt. How it will be done puts the Church into uncharted waters.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.