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.

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