VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The Vatican said Thursday that Pope Francis meets frequently with victims of sexual abuse, seeking to defuse a mounting scandal over his unbridled support for a Chilean bishop accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.
Several times a month, Francis meets in private with victims individually or in groups to listen to their stories "and help them to heal their serious wounds," spokesman Greg Burke said in a statement.
Francis is facing one of the gravest crises of his papacy after he dismissed victims' complaints that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros covered-up their abuse. Francis repeatedly called their accusations slander and said he was certain of Barros' innocence.
After his comments sparked outrage during his recent trip to Chile, Francis was forced to do an about-face and send in a Vatican investigator to look into accusations against Barros, who was a protege of Chile's most notorious predator priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's respected former sex crimes investigator, begins his fact-finding mission on Saturday by meeting with Barros' main accuser.
The Vatican in 2010 sanctioned Karadima to a lifetime of penance and prayer for sexually and psychologically abusing minors and adult seminarians in his El Bosque parish community in a well-to-do neighborhood of Santiago. Victims told both Vatican and Chilean prosecutors that Karadima would kiss and fondle them in public, and that behind closed doors, he would masturbate his preferred acolytes and have them confess on their knees in front of his crotch.
Juan Carlos Cruz and two other key whistleblowers have said Barros witnessed their abuse, ignored it and even participated in the psychological abuse that Karadima would then inflict when he sensed disobedience or disloyalty.
Barros has denied witnessing any abuse or covering it up.
Francis sparked outrage in 2015 when he appointed Barros, then Chile's military chaplain, to head the diocese of Osorno, Chile, over the objections of some members of the Chilean bishops' conference. They feared continued fallout from the Karadima scandal and had recommended that Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops resign and take a year-long sabbatical.
Francis has said he overruled the recommendation and rejected Barros' resignation twice because he said he couldn't in good faith accept it when he had no evidence of Barros' wrongdoing.
The Associated Press, however, reported that Francis received an eight-page letter from Cruz in April 2015 detailing his abuse and Barros' role in witnessing and ignoring it. Cruz also said that during the Karadima investigations, which began in 2009, he testified about Barros' behavior on at least four separate occasions, twice to Chilean church investigators and twice to Chilean state judicial authorities.
Francis had said he had never heard from any victims about Barros' behavior.
The Vatican announced Scicluna's fact-finding mission after Francis' trip to Chile. Scicluna meets with Cruz on Saturday.
The timing of Burke's statement revealing Francis' regular encounters with victims coincided with the start of Scicluna's mission, as well as the release Thursday of a transcript of a meeting Francis held with Jesuits in Chile and Peru during which he said that he met with victims more often than was previously known.
Francis, though, had said as much during an in-flight press conference returning from the trip.