Pope Francis apologized Monday for remarks he made defending a Chilean bishop accused of covering up sex abuse, but he did not back down in his support of the bishop.
On a flight to Rome following a weeklong trip to Chile and Peru, the pope told reporters he was sorry for his choice of words and the tone of his voice when answering a reporter’s question about Bishop Juan Barros last week. He said his words “wounded many” and were a “slap” in the face.
Last week, Pope Francis responded to allegations against Barros. “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. Everything is slander. Is this clear?”
On Monday, he acknowledged that the word “proof” may have hurt many victims.
“To hear the pope tell them to their faces, ‘Bring me a letter with the proof’, it’s a slap, and I realize now that my expression was unfortunate,” he said.
He added that he should have used the term “evidence,” which he said could include testimony.
But the pope doubled down on his support of Barros, saying the Vatican had investigated the bishop and did not find “any element to condemn him.”
Pope Francis said he was “convinced” of Barros’ innocence.
Barros’ critics say he was complicit in keeping quiet about the sex abuse of his former mentor, Chilean priest Fernando Karadima. The Vatican sanctioned Karadima in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer, based on the testimony of victims who said the priest molested and fondled minors in his Santiago parish.
Barros has denied accusations that he knew about the abuse.
Pope Francis’ comments last week about Barros dominated news coverage of his trip to Chile and Peru and led to unusual criticism by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Pope Francis’ top adviser on abuse. O’Malley said the pope’s words were a “source of great pain for survivors.”
On Monday’s plane ride to Rome, Pope Francis called O’Malley’s comment “very fair.”
“He recalled everything I did, and what I do, and what the Church does, and then he spoke of the pain of the victims,” Francis said.