Pope Francis has apologised to victims of clerical abuse, saying he unknowingly wounded them by the way he defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by his mentor.

Speaking to journalists on his flight to Rome from Lima, Peru, the Pope said he only realised later that his words erroneously implied that victims’ accusations were 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.

Pope Francis was referring to a response he gave in Iquique, Chile, when reporters asked about his support for Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, given accusations that the bishop may have been aware of abuse perpetrated by his former mentor, Fr Fernando Karadima.

The priest was sentenced to a life of prayer and penance by the Vatican after he was found guilty of sexually abusing boys.

“The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It is calumny. Is that clear?” the Pope said.

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