POPE Francis has apologised to victims of clerical sex abuse, saying he had 'wounded many' in comments defending a bishop who is accused of covering up abuse.
He said he realised his words hurt many, but repeated his belief that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros was innocent.
The Pope made the apology while speaking to journalists on board a plane flying back to Rome.
While he apologised for his choice of words and tone of voice when he answered a reporter's question last Thursday in Chile, he also said he was certain that Bishop Barros, was innocent.
"I have to apologise," the Pope told reporters aboard the plane, 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."
Previously, Pope Francis said Bishop Barros, who is accused of protecting a notorious Chilean 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 to the Pope at the end of an event and shouted out a question about Bishop 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?" he replied.
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.
The Pope said he regretted using the word "proof," saying he realised that it came off as a slap in the face.
"There are lots of abused people who cannot show proof. They don't have it. Or they have it but they keep it to themselves, suffering in silence," he said.