Pope apologizes to sex abuse victims, but defends Chilean bishop

Pope Francis has apologized for something he said last week in Chile, when he insisted that victims of pedophile priests show "proof" in order to be believed.

Pontiff says he can't condemn Chile's bishop of Osorno without evidence of alleged coverup

Pope Francis took questions from journalists on board the plane during his flight to Rome on Sunday, after a trip to Chile and Peru. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Pope Francis apologized Sunday for insisting that victims of pedophile priests show "proof" to be believed, saying he realized it was a "slap in the face" to victims that he never intended.

But he doubled down in defending a Chilean bishop accused of covering up for the country's most notorious pedophile priest, and he repeated that anyone who makes such accusations without providing evidence is guilty of slander.

Francis issued the partial mea culpa in an airborne news conference as he returned home from Chile and Peru, where the clergy abuse scandal and his own comments about it plunged the Chilean church into renewed crisis and revived questions about whether Francis "gets it" about abuse.

Francis insisted that to date no one had provided him with evidence that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in keeping quiet about the perversions of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, the charismatic Chilean priest who was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011 for molesting and fondling minors in his Santiago parish.

Flying home from the most contested trip of his papacy, Francis said Barros would remain bishop of Osorno, Chile as long as there's no evidence implicating him in the alleged coverup.

'I don't have evidence'

"I can't condemn him because I don't have evidence," Francis said. "But I'm also convinced that he's innocent."

Karadima was removed from ministry and sentenced by the Vatican in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer based on the testimony of his victims. A Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying that while she had to drop charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, proof of his crimes wasn't lacking.

The victims have said for years that Barros witnessed the abuse and did nothing to stop it. Barros denies the accusations.

The Pope has again defended the bishop of Osorno, Juan Barros, seen here on Jan. 18 at an open-air mass to celebrate Francis, against accusations that Barros covered up for Chile's most notorious pedophile priest. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

"The best thing is for those who believe this to bring the evidence forward," Francis said. "In this moment I don't think it's this way, because I don't have it, but I have an open heart to receive them."

Francis, though, repeated again that anyone who makes an accusation without evidence is guilty of slander.

"Someone who accuses insistently without evidence, this is calumny," he said. "If I say 'you stole something, you stole something,' I'm slandering you because I don't have evidence."

He acknowledged that he misspoke when he said he needed to see "proof" to believe the accusations, saying it was a legal term that he didn't intend.

"Here I have to apologize because the word 'proof' hurt them. It hurt a lot of abused people," he said. "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."