Pope Francis has apologised for insisting that victims of paedophile priests show "proof" to be believed, saying he realised it was a "slap in the face" to victims that he never intended.
But he continued to defend a Chilean bishop accused by victims of covering up for the country's most notorious paedophile 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 press 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 Father 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 Mr Barros would remain bishop of Osorno, Chile as long as there was no evidence implicating him in the cover-up.
"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 evidence of his victims.
A Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying while she had to drop charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, proof of his crimes was not lacking.
The victims have said for years that Mr Barros witnessed the abuse and did nothing to stop it. Mr Barros denies the accusations.
"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 apologise 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."