Pope Francis, in an extremely rare act of self-criticism, apologised to victims of clerical sex abuse on Sunday, acknowledging he had "wounded many" in comments defending a Chilean bishop who is under scrutiny.
But while the pope said he was sorry for his choice of words and tone of voice when he testily answered a reporter's question last Thursday in Chile, he also said he was certain that the prelate, Juan Barros, was innocent.
"I have to apologise," an unusually contrite pope told reporters aboard the plane returning to Rome from a week-long trip to Chile and Peru, saying he realised he had "wounded many people who were abused".
"I apologise to them if I hurt them without realising it, but it was a wound that I inflicted without meaning to," he said. "It pains me very much."
In the latest twist to a saga that has gripped Chile, Francis said Barros, who is accused of protecting a notorious paedophile, would remain in his place in the diocese of Osorno because there currently was no credible evidence against him
Last Thursday, a Chilean reporter managed to get close the pope at the end of an event and shouted out a question about Barros.
"The day I see proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk. There is not a single piece of evidence against him. It is all slander. Is that clear?" the pope replied in a snippy tone.
His comments were seen as trying to dismiss the credibility of accusers and was widely criticised by victims, their advocates and newspaper editorials in Chile and the pope's native Argentina.
On Saturday, even Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, a key papal adviser, distanced himself with a statement saying the pope had caused "great pain."
Francis said on the plane: "I know how much they (abuse victims) suffer in hearing the pope say to them 'bring me a letter with the proof,' I realise that it is a slap in their faces, and now I realise that my expression was an unfortunate one."
Barros has been accused of protecting his former mentor, the Rev Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty in a Vatican investigation in 2011 of abusing teenage boys over many years. Karadima denies the allegations, and Barros said he was unaware of any wrongdoing.
Barros was among the men Karadima trained about 20 years ago. Barros and three others went on to become bishops. A Chilean, Juan Carlos Cruz, said Barros saw Karadima abuse him.
In his comments on the plane, the pope disclosed that Barros had offered to resign twice in recent years but Francis rejected the offers.
"I can't condemn him because I don't have evidence and because I am convinced he is innocent," Francis said.
He said Barros would remain in his place unless credible evidence is found against him.
The statement from O'Malley on Saturday implicitly criticising the pope was even more remarkable because O'Malley heads a papal commission advising the pontiff on how to root out sexual abuse in the Church.