updated 8/17/2009 6:14:55 PM ET 2009-08-17T22:14:55

An association of U.S. Roman Catholic sisters raised questions Monday about why they are the target of, and who is paying for, a Vatican investigation that is shaping up to be a tough review of whether sisters have strayed from church teaching.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing about 800 heads of religious orders, said there was a "lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources" for the inquiry. The group also said it objects to the Vatican plan to keep private the reports that will be submitted to the Holy See.

"There's no transparency there," said Sister Annmarie Sanders, a conference spokeswoman.

The investigation, announced earlier this year, will examine the practices of the roughly 59,000 Catholic sisters working in the United States. Some sisters have privately expressed anger over the assessment, which they say unfairly questions their commitment to church teaching. However, in public they have remained largely circumspect in their comments.

Some suspected of being unfaithful
At the conference's assembly last week in New Orleans, the outgoing president of the group, Sister J. Lora Dambroski, described the investigation as a challenge to creatively live out the Gospel and said it could be "another defining moment" for Catholic sisters.

A Vatican working paper delivered recently to leaders of 341 U.S. religious congregations said that the review "is intended as a constructive assessment and an expression of genuine concern for the quality of the life" of the religious communities.

But the nature of some questions seems to validate concerns that they are suspected of being unfaithful to the church.

Among the requested information are details of "the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church."

Separately, the Vatican has opened a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is based in Silver Spring, Md.

The Connecticut office of Mother Clare Millea, who is overseeing the investigation of the U.S. sisters, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

'The typical Vatican approach'
In a July 31 interview with Catholic News Service, Millea said "we are welcoming the support of individual dioceses, individuals or groups who would be willing to help defray the expenses" of the study, called an apostolic visitation. It could take up to three years.

The Vatican ordered a similar investigation of U.S. Catholic seminaries in 2002, at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis. Vatican leaders did not publicly disclose the information that the investigators filed to Rome and did not provide specifics on funding for the inquiry. However, the Vatican did eventually release its own report on the state of the schools.

"That's just the typical Vatican approach to these things," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

The Vatican often relies on the U.S. church, among the wealthiest Catholic communities in the world, to fund church work, even an unwelcome inquiry. In the working paper for the religious orders' review is a request for the women to cover travel costs for the investigators.

If Millea is still seeking donations now that the study is under way, Reese said, "then it hasn't been bankrolled" by any lay person or group hoping to influence the study.

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