BALTIMORE — As the nation's Catholic bishops scrambled last week to portray a unified response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis, it was one of the younger members of their hierarchy who offered perhaps the frankest assessment of their problem.

"We do sometimes act as a good old boys club," said San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, 62, citing a record of "cronyism, favoritism, and cover-up" he has witnessed among some of his peers over his episcopal career.

His remarks, delivered to a packed hotel conference room on the Baltimore waterfront, underscored a generational divide that is shaping their efforts to confront the issue that once again is roiling the Catholic Church in America.

About a third of the church's 195 dioceses are led by prelates elevated to the hierarchy before 2002, the year the clergy sex-abuse scandal kicked off in Boston. More than half are 65 or older.

That split in age was starkly on display in Baltimore as they weighed a slate of reform proposals designed to make themselves more accountable. Although the Vatican ordered them to hold off before approving any new policies at their fall gathering, in the end it was clear they lacked a consensus even if they had voted. And many of the most outspoken detractors came from that older crop of prelates.

"We must not allow outside groups of any kind … to interfere with or attempt to break the bonds of our ecclesial union," said Cardinal Roger Mahony, the 82-year-old retired archbishop of Los Angeles. Addressing the ballroom of his peers, he described a hierarchy under siege — from prosecutors, politicians, and the media — and compared the current moment to centuries past when "kings, emperors, wealthy merchants … tried to interfere with the lives of bishops."

As he offered his opinion, one younger bishop was spotted cringing – his eyes cast downward, his head collapsed in his hands.

It was a class of newly minted bishops – who in some cases had spent more than a decade as priests under the "zero-tolerance" policies adopted for rank-and-file clergy in 2002 – that emerged during the conference as the strongest advocates for applying those rules up the ladder.

"Maybe that moment has passed," Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto, 62, said of the old-guard instinct to close ranks. "In the current time, transparency and independent review seems to be more on the minds of the faithful."

Terry McKiernan, founder of the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, pointed to the autonomy bishops from an older generation enjoyed in their dioceses to explain the resistance to change some were showing. By contrast, he said, the prelates who came to their positions more recently have less of an expectation of unquestioned authority.

"The old-timers, they were trained in a very different church and I think they had a different experience of the 2002 abuse crisis as bishops," he said. "The new guard, experienced the crisis as priests on the front lines."

One of the strongest voices to emerge during the conference in support of immediate and significant action was Shawn McKnight, elevated nine months ago to bishop of Jefferson City, Mo.

When the Vatican order was announced Monday, McKnight openly questioned the Holy See for its "lack of responsiveness and immediacy" in language hinting at rebellion.

"I'm beginning to wonder if we need to look at a resolution where we refuse to participate in any kind of cover-up from those above us," he told the Washington Post. "We have to be respectful of the Roman Curia, but also we have an obligation to our people."

(He delivered another harsh assessment Friday in an open letter to his diocese, stating:  "History proves that we bishops are not capable of policing ourselves adequately on the issue of clergy sexual abuse. … We bishops are ineffectual in our attempts to address the problem of abuse of power by the hierarchy.")

But as discussion in Baltimore focused on to the specific proposals under consideration – including an independently run hotline for fielding complaints against bishops — some of the eldest members of the conference began speaking out.

Retired Bishop Donald Trautman, 82 — whose handling of abuse cases during his time at the helm of the Erie Diocese was savaged in the August Pennsylvania grand jury report — railed against the idea as not only "dangerous" but "unjust."

Several of his younger colleagues had earlier praised civil authorities and the media for exposing crimes committed by clerics and igniting this latest crisis. But Trautman remained defiant.

"We should not be so naïve as to accept every government report, every media report as completely accurate or honest," he said, specifically citing a Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe investigation this month that found more than 130 living bishops had been accused of covering up abuse during their careers. As a retired bishop, he won't have a vote in any final decisions, but his comments drew a smattering of applause from the room full of bishops.

Robert Daniel Conlon — a bishop since 2002 who now leads the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. — bristled at the prospect of a new code of conduct for prelates that would mirror many of the policies already in place for priests.

"I have to say I'm a little chagrined to be asked to sign something that says I will be accountable to certain standards," he said.

They were joined by Mahony, the former Los Angeles archbishop first elevated by Pope Paul VI in 1975. Since his retirement, Mahony's successor has banned him from any public duties in his old archdiocese for his alleged failures to protect children there from sexually abusive priests.

For Paul D. Etienne, the 59-year-old archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska, the difference between the outlook of older bishops and those of his generation is stark. In an interview in the weeks leading up to last week's conference, he acknowledged that his experiences as a younger bishop shaped his views on many of the reform proposals up for debate.

Named a bishop by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, he was forced to confront the implications of the abuse crisis from the start of his first posting in Cheyenne, Wyo.

His predecessor there, Bishop Robert Hart, remained a popular figure despite a raft of abuse allegations lodged against him involving children. And though Etienne urged the Vatican to open a church-led investigation, his requests were met for years with silence.

"My experiences [in Cheyenne and as a priest in 2002] have a lot to do with my feeling about our present crisis," he said.

It was Etienne's successor in Cheyenne – 59-year-old Bishop Steven Biegler, appointed last year – who eventually succeeded in persuading both law enforcement and Vatican authorities to pursue new probes of Hart's conduct.

Biegler, too, said that the experience had convinced him that the U.S. hierarchy needed meaningful changes, such as the reform measure that attracted the most controversy during last week's debate – a proposal for a lay-led panel to investigate problem bishops.

Several prelates bristled at the idea, noting that it could overstep the restrictions of church's canon law. Instead, they suggested pushing Rome to let metropolitan archbishops investigate their peers in neighboring dioceses with assistance from their local review boards.

In an emotional appeal Wednesday, the last day of the conference, Biegler pushed back, citing parishioners who had felt betrayed many times over by past promises from the church to police itself.

"It's not a theory that I have  – it's an experience I've had," he told his fellow bishops, his voice trailing off. "Reform in the church needs to be more than canon law. For reform in our lives as bishops, it needs be more than canon law."

His sentiments echoed those of an unlikely ally, who spoke a day before – Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of the oldest hands in the room.

Wuerl's stint as archbishop of Pittsburgh between 1988 and 2006 has made him a flash point in the current crisis. Now 78, he resigned last month as archbishop of Washington amid allegations that he covered up abuse during his prior posting – accusations he continues to deny.

But as he quietly took the microphone Tuesday and turned to the crowd of all ages, Wuerl called for his colleagues to set aside their egos for the wider good of the church.

"Sometimes we have to take personal responsibility, and we simply need to say: This needs to be done," he said. "Personally — that's where purification has to be part of the process."

Staff writer Michele Tranquilli contributed to this article.