NEW YORK / ROME — On the one month anniversary of explosive charges against Pope Francis’ handling of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of abuse, it has become clear that the U.S. bishops’ request for a Vatican-led investigation will not move forward, leading the prelates to ponder what comes next.

Last month, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò alleged in an 11-page “testimonial” that Pope Francis was not only aware of McCarrick’s history of abuse, but that Francis had removed sanctions imposed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI. This led to the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, to double down on his request to meet with Pope Francis in hopes of a Vatican-led investigation into how McCarrick climbed the ranks of leadership within the Church.

On September 13, DiNardo, along with USCCB vice-president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and Monsignor Brian Bransfield, general secretary of the conference, were granted a much-anticipated audience with Pope Francis.

Even though, as he told Crux, O’Malley was there mostly as an “observer,” he’s the one who handed the pontiff the letter from American bishops requesting the meeting.

RELATED: O’Malley: Pope Francis is ‘anxious’ to help Church in the U.S.

Following that meeting, the USCCB released a statement in which they said they had shared with Francis “how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse,” and termed it a “lengthy, fruitful, and good exchange.”

The specifics of what happened inside that meeting, however, remained sketchy. Yet during interviews with more than two-dozen bishops in Rome and the United States, along with more than a dozen high-ranking Vatican officials and USCCB personnel, a clearer picture has emerged as to what the next steps will be as the American bishops seek to find answers, to right past wrongs, and to set a new course of action in Church policy toward protecting minors and vulnerable adults.

In the Room Where it Happened

Going into the meeting with Francis, the desired outcome was an official Vatican investigation into McCarrick known as an “apostolic visitation.” DiNardo announced that during a news conference after release of a statement from the USCCB on Aug. 16.

Several sources have confirmed that the pontiff made a “counter-offer,” suggesting instead that the bishops suspend their upcoming November meeting in favor of a week-long Ignatian-style retreat. At the moment, the USCCB administrative committee is inclined to let the plans for its fall assembly stand, adding only a one-day retreat on Sunday and a possible lengthier retreat at a date yet to be determined.

With no apostolic visitation in sight, Crux has learned that the USCCB has opted for an investigation led primarily by lay individuals, in cooperation with the U.S. bishops, that will focus on the four dioceses in which McCarrick served: New York; Metuchen, New Jersey; Newark; and Washington, D.C.

Such an investigation, however, will be limited to the voluntary cooperation of the four dioceses involved as the USCCB does not possess canonical authority to mandate compliance.

Meanwhile, on September 10, the Vatican announced that it would soon release “necessary clarifications” on McCarrick. Sources have indicated that the process of collecting information on the McCarrick case is being led by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who was part of the entourage of Pope Francis’ Sept. 22-25 visit to the Baltics.

“It cannot be a DOD redacted memo”

Multiple sources have indicated that the anticipated document from the Holy See could go a long way in putting out some of the fires ignited by the McCarrick scandal, the Viganò letter, and the many questions that have risen as a consequence.

Crux has also learned that Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, has turned over his office’s materials on McCarrick to the Secretary of State.

Another source noted that during Viganò’s tenure as nuncio, if a Catholic college sought to give an award to a Liberation Theology expert, the institution would receive a phone call from the nunciature lodging a complaint or a warning. According to this official, no calls were ever made when McCarrick, who was supposedly under sanctions from the Vatican, was given honors, some of which have already been rescinded.

“Why was this?” they asked.  

In fact, as has been widely reported, Viganò appeared at multiple events alongside McCarrick during the years in which the alleged sanctions were in place, and he himself presented McCarrick with an award, praising him at a 2012 dinner as a “cardinal whom we all love very much.”

If there were in fact, restrictions of some kind placed on McCarrick — as several sources both in Rome and the U.S. have indicated to Crux seems to have been the case — many observers have insisted that the Holy See was more interested in “saving face,” rather than face a reckoning over a man who had led not one but two dioceses to settle with men he had abused when they were young adults.

Several sources have also expressed fear that the forthcoming document from the Secretary of State will be so redacted as to resemble a confidential document of the Department of Defense, and that instead of answering questions it will only add to the list of unknowns.

Others suspect that it will lack the transparency needed to answer the two key questions: Why was McCarrick allowed to ascend the ranks of Church leadership and who were the key players involved in that decision?

While some observers have criticized the role of Pope John Paul II for facilitating McCarrick’s appointment as archbishop of Washington, D.C., and soon thereafter making him a Cardinal, many others insist that the ironclad circle of his closest advisers bear the brunt of responsibility.

That iron circle includes Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, at the time the Vatican’s Secretary of State; Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dzwisz, John Paul’s personal secretary; and Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who in 2000 was appointed as Substitute for General Affairs, technically speaking, the third most important position within the Vatican, serving essentially as the pope’s chief of staff.

As one bishop noted when discussing McCarrick’s career with Crux, the popular prelate was ignored several times when opportunities presented themselves for him to be promoted within the U.S. Church, indicating that some influential players inside the Vatican were likely aware of rumors about McCarrick’s behavior or reputation.  

Meanwhile, some have argued that McCarrick’s resignation as Archbishop of Washington, where he was first appointed in 2001, was accepted five years later when he turned 75, could be seen as a “first restriction” of sorts, given that it’s unusual for a pope to accept the resignation of a cardinal at that age when every bishop is obliged to present it.

In the weeks ahead, the leadership of the U.S. bishops will be working on more concrete efforts for their own internal investigation. This will include already announced plans for a third-party reporting system for complaints of sexual abuse of minors by a bishop and sexual harassment or sexual misconduct with adults, new changes to canon law for bishops who were removed or who resigned due to abuse, and a Code of Conduct along those same lines.  

All of this is expected to be finalized in draft form in hopes of reaching a consensus at what promises to be an unusually high profile General Assembly Meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore this November.

Yet as one high-ranking Church official told Crux, while it’s incumbent upon the U.S. bishops to reform their own policies for handling negligent bishops, the information that really matters lies “on the other side of the Atlantic.”