Pope Francis Apologizes To Sexual Abuse Victims, But Still Backs Bishop

Caught in a renewed firestorm of controversy, Pope Francis apologized for remarks he made last week defending a Chilean bishop accused of covering up decades of sexual abuse. But the pontiff held fast in his support of the bishop, maintaining his innocence.

"I apologize to them if I hurt them without realizing it, but it was a wound that I inflicted without meaning to," the pope told reporters on the papal flight returning from Latin America to Rome on Monday.

Last week the pope accused victims of sexual abuse in Chile of slander, saying their attacks on Bishop Juan Barros amount to "calumny" because there is "not a shred of evidence against him." He added, "The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I'll speak."

On board the flight the Pope said it was only in retrospect that he realized his words implied that victims' allegations of sexual abuse are credible only with concrete proof. "To hear that the pope says to their face, 'Bring me a letter with proof,' is a slap in the face," he said.

"It pains me very much," he said, adding that "covering up abuse is an abuse in itself."

However, Francis again insisted that Barros did not know about the abuses committed by his mentor Rev. Fernando Karadima. He said that to punish the bishop without moral certainty, "I would be committing the crime of a bad judge," according to Catholic News Service.

Francis' words last week were the catalyst for renewed protests in Chile where several churches were fire bombed last week. They also drew criticism from the Pope's top adviser on clerical sex abuse, the Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

"It is understandable that Pope Francis' statements . . . were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator," O'Malley said in a statement Saturday.

"Words that convey the message 'if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed' abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile" O'Malley said.

As NPR has reported:

[Bishop Barros] has been hotly criticized ever since the pope appointed him in 2015. Barros was the protégé of Rev. Fernando Karadima, a notorious disgraced priest who served in the southern city of Osorno and who was found guilty and dismissed in 2011 for abusing dozens of minors over a decades-long period beginning in the 1980s.

Karadima became the face of the church's sexual abuse scandal in Chile. And his victims say they believe Barros knew about the priest's abuse but did nothing to stop it or report it. As recently as this week, Barros has denied witnessing any abuse.

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