POPE Francis has apologised for insisting that victims of paedophile priests show “proof” to be believed, saying he realised it was a “slap in the face” to victims that he never intended.

Francis claimed he misspoke, and that “proof” was a legal term that he didn’t intend.

But he continued to defend a Chilean bishop accused by victims of covering up for the country’s most notorious paedophile priest, and he repeated that anyone who makes such accusations without providing evidence is guilty of slander.

Francis issued the partial mea culpa as he returned home from Chile and Peru, where the clergy abuse scandal and his own comments about it have plunged the Chilean church into renewed crisis.

Francis insisted that to date no-one had provided him with evidence that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in keeping quiet about the perversions of Father Fernando Karadima.

Karadima was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011 for molesting and fondling minors in his Santiago parish. He was removed from ministry and sentenced by the Vatican to a lifetime of penance and prayer based on the evidence of his victims.

A Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying while she had to drop charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, proof of his crimes was not lacking.