VATICAN CITY -- 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.
Spokesman Greg Burke said in a statement that Francis meets in private with victims individually or in groups several times a month to "listen to them and try to help them to heal their serious wounds."
In comments also released Thursday, Francis called clerical sex abuse a "humiliation" that exposes the church's "hypocrisy."
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. During a recent trip to Chile, Francis repeatedly called their accusations slander and said he was certain of Barros' innocence.
After his comments sparked outrage, Francis was forced to do an about-face and send in a Vatican investigator to look into accusations against Barros, 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.
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 on them 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.
Francis has said he overruled their recommendation and rejected Barros' resignation twice because he said he couldn't in good faith remove him 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 how Barros witnessed it and ignored it. Cruz had mailed similar versions of the letter to the pope and his ambassador in Santiago, but never received any response.
On Thursday, asked to respond to revelations of the pope's meetings with victims, Cruz said that if Francis truly did listen to victims, he would have learned how much they suffer, particularly when they are mistreated by their own pastors.
The timing of Burke's statement revealing Francis' regular encounters with victims coincided with the release Thursday of a transcript of a meeting Francis held with his fellow Jesuits in Chile and Peru during which he said that he met with victims more often than was previously known, often on Fridays.
He said the shame of sexual abuse in the church was a "great humiliation."
Francis had said before that he met with victims more frequently than previously announced, but Thursday's announcements provided more details about just how often those meetings were.