Pope Francis has forcefully defended Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who has been accused of concealing a priest's sexual abuse of children, saying he has no evidence the allegations are true.
"The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will speak," the pope said in response to a reporter's question Thursday about Barros prior to celebrating an open-air mass in the northern Chilean city of Iquique.
Chile's most infamous pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima, was given a lifetime of "penance and prayer" during a church proceeding when victims publicly disclosed their accusations in 2010 following years of complaints to leaders that he kissed and fondled them when they were teenagers.
Many Chileans are still angry about the pope's 2015 decision to appoint Barros, a Karadima protege, as bishop of the southern city of Osorno. Barros' controversial appointment has divided the diocese, as he has denied being aware of Karadima's abuse, and local Catholic groups in his southern diocese of Osorno are demanding that Francis remove him.
But the anger did not stop the pope from offering his unwavering support of the 61-year-old bishop.
"There is not a single piece of proof against him. Everything is slander. Is this clear?"
One of Karadima's victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, said Barros "is a liar, a delinquent, who has amnesia after covering up for Karadima. He has covered-up abuses and should be in jail or at least dismissed."
Barros, who was attending the mass with hundreds of other bishops and clergy, has had a conspicuous presence at both of the pope's previous open-air masses and his meeting with clergy at the Santiago cathedral.
The pope also met in Santiago Tuesday with survivors of clerical sex abuse. The pope wept with them and asked forgiveness for the "irreparable damage" they suffered as children when they were sexually abused by priests — a scandal that has damaged the Catholic Church's integrity and cast a pall over the pope's first visit to the country.
The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Bishop Accountability reported last week that nearly 80 Catholic clergy members had been accused of sexually abusing Chilean children since 2000.
Church takes a hit in Chile
A recent Latinobarometro survey said the crisis triggered a sharp drop in the number of Chileans who consider themselves Catholic, as well as a decline in confidence in the church as an institution.
The distrust extends to Pope Francis in Chile, a country that gives him the lowest approval rating among the 18 Latin American countries in the survey.
Francis ends his trip to Chile Thursday by meeting with members of the country's fast-growing immigrant community in Iquique, home to nearly two dozen migrant slums.
As Chile's economy, the region's strongest, lures more immigrants, they are increasingly the targets of political and social discontent.
When he arrived in Chile earlier this week, Francis said the country's future rests on its ability to listen to everyone, including "the migrants who knock on the doors of this country in search of a better life, but also with the strength and the hope of helping to build a better life for all."
Even though the numbers are relatively small, Chile had the fastest annual rate of migrant growth of any country in Latin America between 2010 and 2015, according to U.N. and church statistics.
Most are Haitians, who frequently face language barriers that limit job opportunities.
As his plane flew over Chile Thursday, Francis performed what is believed to be the first-ever airborne papal wedding. He married two flight attendants from Chile's flagship airline during a flight from Santiago to Iquique. Bride Paola Podest and groom Carlos Ciuffardi told Francis they had been married in a civil service ceremony in 2010, but were unable to follow up with a church ceremony because of the 2010 earthquake that hit Chile.
Francis then offered to marry the LATAM flight attendants and they both readily agreed.
Ciuffardi told reporters aboard the plane that Francis told him no pope had ever before married a couple aboard a plane.