ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – Returning to Rome from a sometimes contentious six-day trip to Latin America, Pope Francis said he regretted the language he used along the way regarding sexual abuse victims who have accused a Chilean bishop of covering up their abuse, but did not back down from his support for that bishop.

Francis said he’s convinced of the innocence of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who has been accused by survivors of covering up cases of sexual abuse by infamous Chilean priest Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty by a church process in 2011.

Barros “will stay in his post, I cannot condemn him without evidence,” the pope said during the flight from Peru to Rome.

“I personally am convinced that he’s innocent,” Francis said.

The pope did, however, express regret for how he made that point in Chile.

For one thing, Francis said that in speaking about the case he should have been clearer about the distinction between “evidence” and “proof,” especially since abuse victims have often had the experience of suffering deep harm but have not necessarily been in a position to “prove” it.

More basically, Francis said he knows how much victims suffer, and he acknowledged that “to feel that the pope tells them to their face, ‘give me a letter with the proof,’” came off as “a slap in the face.”

On Thursday, the last day of his Jan. 15-18 visit to Chile, as he was getting ready to say Mass in Iquique, the pope was approached by a local journalist about the Barros case. Francis responded by saying that the day he’s presented with proof against Barros, he’ll decide what to do.

“There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny,” the pope said at the time.

He told reporters travelling with him on the plane that he’d thought about whether he should answer the question on Thursday, and decided to do so because years ago, Barros was a bishop in Iquique and the person asking the question belonged to that diocese and thus had a right to know.

The pope said he’d had the Barros case investigated, and the conclusion was “there’s no evidence.”

“There’s no evidence, no proof of guilt,” the pope insisted. “I wait for the evidence to change the way I lean. Until then, I apply the juridical principle of any tribunal: Innocent until proven guilty.”

“The Barros case was studied, and studied again, and there was no evidence,” he insisted. “This is what I meant. I have no evidence to condemn him. And if I were to condemn him without evidence or moral certainty, I would commit the crime of [being] a bad judge.”

Referring to the declarations he gave to the journalist, Francis said the word “proof” probably “wasn’t the best word to approach a wounded heart.”

“I was talking about evidence,” the pontiff said. “Of course, I know that there are a lot of victims of abuse who cannot bring proof, they don’t have it. Who can’t or sometimes don’t have [proof], or who have shame and hide it, and suffer in silence. The drama of those abused is terrible.”

Francis also confided that Barros offered his resignation twice, once before Francis named him to lead a southern diocese in 2015 and once again afterwards.

After the Karadima case exploded, Francis said, a person from the Chilean bishops’ conference suggested that Barros and three other bishops who had been “sent to seminary by Karadima” should present their resignations. Of the four, one has been out of the eye of the storm because he’s gravely ill and no longer heading a diocese.

The plan was for the bishops to resign, take a sabbatical, and, once the storm had passed, to decide what to do.

It was designed “to avoid accusations, because these are good bishops,” Francis said.

“We asked for the resignation, and Barros generously gave it,” the pope continued. “He came to Rome, but I said no. You don’t play like that, because this is admitting previous guilt.”

When Barros was transferred from being the country’s military bishop to the southern diocese of Osorno, and the protests against him continued, the prelate once again presented Francis his resignation, “and I said no, you’re going.”

English-speaking journalists asked Francis about a statement on Saturday from Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, about the pope’s comments on Barros. In it, the cardinal said while the pope is committed to zero tolerance, it was “understandable” that Francis’s words had caused “great pain.”

Francis referred to the second part of the declarations he gave on Thursday, about the accusations against Barros being “calumnies.”

“To insist, without evidence on one thing or the other, is a calumny,” he said. “If I say, someone stole something, without evidence, that is calumny. I haven’t heard from a victim of Barros. They didn’t come [to meet me]. They gave no evidence.”

Addressing journalists, the pope said, “You tell me they exist,” but insisted that he hasn’t seen the victims’ evidence because “they didn’t present themselves.”

Several of the victims who accused Barros of a cover-up have repeatedly spoken with the press to present their case, but at this point it’s unclear if they’ve ever made an official request to meet the pope, either through the Vatican or the papal representative in Chile.

Lay people of Osorno who protested the Barros appointment told Crux before the visit that they had asked to meet with Francis, and the encounter didn’t happen, but they’re not themselves abuse victims.

As for the anti-abuse commission O’Malley leads, on Dec. 17 the three-year term of current members expired. Francis said that new members – many of whom will carry over, while others are new- are currently being vetted by the Roman Curia, meaning the Church’s central bureaucracy.

Sources have confirmed to Crux that the commission is still planning on meeting in April, with its new members on hand.

As he did at the press conference coming back from Myanmar and Bangladesh, the pope insisted on having questions related to the trip. Since both countries have been heavily hit by the cases of clerical sexual abuse, most of the questions were related to the issue.

Francis shared the story of a survivor he met with two months ago, a woman who was abused 40 years ago, and who’s today married with children. Despite what happened to her, he said, she’s still a practicing Catholic. Yet since the abuse, the pope confided, she hasn’t been able to go up during the Mass to receive Communion, because she sees in the hands of the priest those of her abuser.

The pontiff noted that it was his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who imposed a “zero tolerance” policy on cases of abuse, and Francis insisted he’s stuck to it. Despite reports to the contrary in some quarters, Francis said he has never signed a single pardon for a sexually abusing cleric in the five years of his papacy.

Explaining how the process works, Francis said that since he was elected, some 20 or 25 priests have asked him for a papal pardon from verdicts of being “defrocked,” meaning removed from the clerical state, handed down by a Church court and confirmed by an appeals court.

Among those who sent requests for forgiveness, he said, there was one priest facing two sentences — one from his own diocese, suggesting caution and imposing several conditions on his ministry; and one from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which oversees the cases of abuse, clearly stating the priest should be defrocked.

“Since we have to do good jurisprudence, in dubbio pro reo, I allowed for the softest sentence to by applied,” Francis said.

But after two years, the pope said, the person proved “unworthy,” and the sentence of the CDF was applied.

The pope referred to the feelings of the victims, saying he’s met with victims during several of his trips abroad, including in Philadelphia during his 2015 visit to the United States and in Chile on the day of his arrival.

Peruvian journalists asked the pope about corruption in the country, and also in the Church, bringing up the case of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a lay movement founded by layman Luis Fernando Figari, accused of several forms of abuse, including sexual, and financial mismanagement.

After saying that he’s “not afraid of sin, I am afraid of corruption,” Francis said that there’s corruption within the Church, and that this has been the case historically. This served “as a bridge to talk about the Sodalitium.”

The pope went through some of the history of the movement, including allegations against the late Germán Doig Klinge (1957-2001), the right-hand man of Figari, who was a sainthood candidate, which led to the revelation of his “double life,” as the pope put it. He’s been found guilty, and the Vatican ordered him to break contact with the members of the movement he founded, though he wasn’t expelled from it.

On this case, the only revelation from what the pope said is that a Vatican court is expected to rule on Figari within the next month, but regardless of the verdict, more allegations have surfaced, and Francis said they are “more serious than the judgement would say.”

“There are various serious cases, and civil justice has intervened,” something the pope labeled as necessary. He added that even though he’s not fully informed of the details of the case, “things are very unfavorable for the founder.”

Finally, Francis said that while some media reports claimed his visit to Chile was a failure, it struck him as a “fairy tale,” and that he left the country happy because he didn’t “expect so many people to go out to the streets” to welcome him.