Amid a clergy sex abuse scandal that has shown no sign of abating, America's Roman Catholic bishops began their annual spring conference Tuesday with pledges to implement a series of first-ever measures aimed at holding each other accountable for misconduct.
Up for debate are new protocols for investigating prelates accused of failing to adequately respond to abuse or, in some cases, of committing sexual transgressions themselves.
But while nearly all the prelates gathering in a hotel ballroom on the Baltimore waterfront acknowledged that something must be done to restore the faithful's trust in their leadership, passage of the protocols up for debate is by no means assured.
Early discussion Tuesday exposed some divisions over the more controversial elements of the plan, while abuse victims from across the country panned the reform package, saying it did not go far enough and did not give the Catholic faithful enough power to provide oversight.
Still, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed confidence that he and his colleagues would emerge from their four-day conference this week with a new resolve to restoring trust in a hierarchy battered by scandal.
"This week we continue a journey that will not end until there is not one instance of abuse in our Church," he said in his opening address to the conference.
This week's meeting isn't the first time the nation's prelates have sought to define rules for better policing each other: They met in the same hotel ballroom on the Baltimore waterfront in November to debate a similar package of reform measures.
But Vatican officials ultimately stymied those efforts at the last minute, barring the bishops from taking any votes out of concern that the new rules they were considering conflicted with Church law.
Calls for the prelates to implement new mechanisms to better hold themselves accountable have only 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 kicked off this latest 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 legal liability.
Meanwhile, several 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 come under fire himself for scrubbing his name 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.
In many respects, Pope Francis already has laid out a road map for the debate that will play out over the next several days.
He issued his own sweeping set of reforms to Church law last month aimed at shaping a global response to the abuse crisis – including a first-of-its kind mandate that all clerics must report suspected cases of sex abuse to Church authorities, including cases involving bishops and cardinals.
But the pontiff left the job of implementing the details of his plan – many of which have been part of Church law in the U.S. since 2002 – up to the various bishops' conferences around the globe.
The most striking difference between Francis' plan and the one U.S. bishops sought to implement last year is the process it lays out for investigations into misconduct by bishops.
The U.S. plan in November called for the establishment of a civilian-led investigatory panel to handle such probes. The pope's proposal, based on an idea first floated by Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, puts that power in the hands of local "metropolitan archbishops" – a title granted to prelates tasked with leading a big-city archdiocese and supervising neighboring bishops.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, for example, is one of 34 metropolitan archbishops in the U.S. who would be assigned to oversee investigations of any of the heads of Pennsylvania's seven other Roman Catholic dioceses. If the archbishop himself were accused of misconduct, the Vatican would appoint another member of the hierarchy to handle the probe.
While the new Vatican laws encourage lay involvement, they do not require it. And critics have questioned whether the new system is yet another example of Church leadership saying the problem is being taken seriously while devising responses that serve ultimately to protect the hierarchy.
"Lay involvement is key to restoring the credibility of the Church," said Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the Church's National Review Board, a panel of civilian advisers. "Not involving laity ... would signal a continuation of a culture of self-preservation that would suggest complicity."
Three other specific measures are up for consideration this week, including guidelines for restricting the ministry of retired bishops whose records have come into question, a new code of conduct that would apply to themselves reforms implemented for priests in 2002, and the establishment of an "independent, third-party hotline" for fielding abuse complaints.