Pope Francis with Greg Burke, director of the Holy See press office, during the flight to Rome on Monday after a trip to Chile and Peru. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Pope Francis apologized for remarks he made last week defending a bishop in Chile accused of covering up sexual abuse, but he did not back down from his support of the bishop who has caused a firestorm. The pope’s remarks had caused widespread backlash among abuse survivors and even prompted criticism from Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and the pope’s top adviser on clerical sex abuse.

Francis said that he realized his words hurt many, but he repeated his view that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros — the bishop at the center of the controversy — is innocent, according to reporters on the papal plane flying back to Rome.

“The drama of those abused is terrible,” the pope said.

Last week, the pope said victims who had accused Barros were committing slander, which drew criticism from O’Malley in Boston.

“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 the statement. “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.”

Sex abuse survivors were outraged in December after the Catholic Church honored disgraced former Boston Archbishop Bernard Law with a full cardinal’s funeral, despite his role in a major coverup. Francis has apologized to sex abuse survivors several times, including during his trip last week, but many Catholics think he has not done enough on the issue. After Francis was appointed to the papacy, he created a reform commission charged with addressing sexual abuse, but the commission lapsed when term limits expired.

Barros’s appointment in 2015 drew outcry from those who allege that he covered up sex abuse committed by his superior in the 1980s and 1990s. Francis defended him last week and on the plane to Rome.

“The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” Francis told Chilean journalists last week, according to the Associated Press. “There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

Francis said on the plane that while “covering up abuse is an abuse in itself,” if he punished Barros without moral certainty, “I would be committing the crime of a bad judge,” according to Catholic News Service.

The Catholic Church has several protections in place to prevent clergy sex abuse in the United States, including performing background checks on clergy and volunteers. However, survivor advocacy groups say many other countries do not have the same safeguards. Sex abuse scandals have erupted across the globe, including in Germany, Ireland and Australia.

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