LIMA, Peru -- Pope Francis has apologized for his highly criticized assertion during a trip to Chile last week that people who have accused a bishop of covering up the alleged sexual abuse of minors by another priest must provide proof.
Francis told the media Thursday that there was no "proof" that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros covered up abuse. The pontiff also suggested that those who have criticized Barros, whom Francis appointed to head the diocese of Osorno in southern Chile, were guilty of slander.
"Here I have to apologize because the word 'proof' hurt them, it hurt a lot of abused people," Francis told reporters late Sunday aboard the papal plane on a flight from Lima to Rome. "I know how much they suffer. And to hear that the pope told them to their face that they need to bring a letter with proof? It's a slap in the face."
But the pope also added that he believed Barros was not guilty and that he had no intention of removing him from his post heading the Osorno diocese. Francis appointed Barros to head the Osorno diocese in 2015. Barros had previously served as bishop of the Chilean armed forces.
Widespread criticism of Francis' comments about Barros tainted Francis' weeklong trip to Chile and Peru.
To many, Francis' comments harked back to a historical church tendency to close ranks in support of abusive priests and shift the blame to the victims, who faced the burden of proving their allegations. Church leaders often cited the lack of proof by those alleging clerical abuse, even though gathering such proof was often close to impossible for the traumatized victims of clerical misconduct.
The international fallout from Francis' comments was so intense that U.S. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston and the pope's top adviser on clergy sexual abuse, issued a statement Saturday calling Francis' words a "source of great pain for survivors," who were left in "discredited exile."
O'Malley's words amounted to an extraordinary effort at Vatican damage control, seeking to walk back the words of the leader of the church.
Francis, who has declared a "no-tolerance" policy for clergy sexual abuse, told reporters he was in agreement with O'Malley's statement.
During his trip to Chile, before his controversial comments on Barros, the pope issued a personal apology to victims of sexual abuse. He expressed remorse about the church's history of abuse and said he was personally ashamed about the clerical misconduct.