BALTIMORE — Amid continued backlash over their response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops convened their annual spring conference Tuesday, vowing again to emerge with measures intended to hold each other accountable for misconduct.

Up for debate during the four-day gathering here this week are new protocols for investigating prelates accused of failing to adequately respond to abuse complaints or committing sexual transgressions themselves. Questions have also arisen as to how much involvement lay Catholics should have in those reviews.

This isn’t the first time members of the church’s hierarchy in the United States have pledged to develop a framework to better police themselves. Past attempts have ended in deadlock, conflict with the Vatican, or measures that victims’ groups panned as too weak to lead to meaningful change.

Still, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed confidence that this week would be different, as the prelates’ efforts would be backed by a road map laid out by Pope Francis last month in sweeping changes to church law.

“We’ve had some bumps in the road even getting to this point,” he said. “But I think we’re in good stead. I’m very, very hopeful much will be done this week.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (right), archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gives a thumbs-up to the audience during the morning prayer at the group's spring assembly Tuesday in Baltimore.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (right), archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gives a thumbs-up to the audience during the morning prayer at the group's spring assembly Tuesday in Baltimore.

The bishops’ last attempt to reshape their own accountability rules ended in November with the Vatican barring them from taking a vote, out of concern that the provisions under consideration — most notably a process for civilian-led investigations of bishop misconduct — conflicted with church law.

Yet discussions among the prelates last year made clear that the passage of that proposal was anything but assured even if a vote had been taken.

Calls for new accountability measures have become louder in the seven months since.

Prosecutors in more than 20 states and the U.S. Department of Justice have launched probes similar to the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation that began this wave of the scandal last year. And lawmakers in New York and New Jersey have passed new laws extending the period of time in which victims can file suit against their abusers, potentially exposing dioceses there to millions of dollars in liability.

Meanwhile, about one-fourth of Catholics reported scaling back their Mass attendance and reducing donations because of the crisis, according to a national survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. Roughly a third said they approved of the job U.S. bishops had done in responding.

Even some of the U.S. prelates leading the response to the crisis have themselves become ensnared in controversy.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore received plaudits last year for his handling of a Vatican-backed investigation into sexual harassment claims involving Philadelphia native and former West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield — only to this month come under fire for scrubbing names. including his own, from a report detailing payments Bransfield made to several leading prelates.

New emails also have surfaced suggesting that top church leaders — including two popes — allowed the now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to flout restrictions put in place after he was accused of multiple instances of abuse.

Even DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and the president of the bishops’ conference, has had to defend himself against allegations he mishandled a case of sexual coercion involving one of his top deputies. A Houston woman claims DiNardo failed to remove the cleric after she reported he had manipulated her into a sexual relationship while counseling her and her husband about their marital difficulties.

Asked about the matter Tuesday, DiNardo said he had “intense disagreements” with those claims and pushed back against calls for his resignation from some protesters outside the Baltimore waterfront hotel where the bishops are meeting.

“I think I can do this pretty well,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, center, participates along with other bishops in a morning prayer at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spring assembly Tuesday in Baltimore.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, center, participates along with other bishops in a morning prayer at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spring assembly Tuesday in Baltimore.

Much of the debate this week is expected to take its lead from the sweeping reforms Francis unveiled last month — including a first-of-its-kind worldwide mandate that all clerics must report suspected abuse cases to church authorities, including those involving bishops and cardinals.

The most striking difference between Francis’ plan and the one the Vatican blocked U.S. bishops from implementing last year is the process it laid out for investigations into misconduct by bishops.

The U.S. proposal in November called for a civilian-led investigatory panel to handle such probes. In the pope’s version, that power would reside with the “metropolitan archbishops” — a title granted to big-city prelates tasked not only with leading their archdiocese but also with supervising neighboring bishops.

For example, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput — who was unable to attend this week’s conference, a spokesperson said, because he’s attending a funeral — is one of 34 metropolitan archbishops in the U.S. and would oversee investigations into claims against the heads of Pennsylvania’s seven other dioceses.

If the archbishop himself were accused of misconduct, the Vatican would appoint another member of the hierarchy to handle the probe. In all cases, authority for any final decisions would rest with the pope.

While the new Vatican laws encourage lay involvement, they do not require it. Critics have accused the new system of being yet another example of church leaders claiming to take the problem seriously while devising responses that serve ultimately to protect themselves.

“Not involving laity … would signal a continuation of a culture of self-preservation that would suggest complicity," said Francisco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, a civilian advisory panel established during the bishops’ first major attempt to address the abuse crisis in 2002.

Response from the victims’ group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, was more blunt. “Any reform that leaves the ultimate authority for investigating abuse and cover-up in the hands of church officials ... is no reform at all,” the group said in a statement.

Asked Tuesday why the U.S. hierarchy was not considering a more forceful requirement for civilian participation in misconduct investigations, Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, Maine, who heads one of the committees responsible for drafting reforms, said the bishops were bound by the limits of the pope’s directive.

“There is an encouragement that lay people be involved,” he said. “But we’re not going beyond what the Holy Father has given.”

He added that he thought it would be “foolhardy” for a bishop to ignore input from the faithful, and pointed out that recent investigations that followed the “metropolitan model” — including those of Bransfield and McCarrick — involved lay experts.

Three other proposals are up for consideration this week, including new guidelines for restricting the ministry of retired bishops whose records have come into question; creation of an “independent third-party” hotline for fielding abuse complaints, and approval of a largely symbolic document reaffirming the bishops’ commitment to hold themselves to the same standards by which priests and deacons are bound.

A vote on the reforms is scheduled for Thursday.