By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis regularly meets with victims of sexual abuse, the Vatican said on Thursday, a disclosure that follows intense criticism of his defence of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed comments the pope made in private during a visit to Peru last month which were reported on Thursday by Civilta Cattolica, a journal of the Jesuit religious order.

"The Holy Father meets victims of sexual abuse, either individually or in groups, several times a month," Burke said in a statement, adding that the pope "tries to help them heal the grave wounds caused by the abuses they suffered."

Remarks the pope made last month have created one of the greatest image crises of his papacy, which marks its fifth anniversary next month.

Francis initially said accusations against the Chilean bishop were "slander" and told reporters aboard his plane returning from Latin America the Vatican had received no concrete evidence against him. [nL8N1PH4F8]

But days later, in a remarkable U-turn, he appointed the Church's most experienced sexual abuse investigator to look into the accusations that Bishop Juan Barros of the diocese of Osorno in Chile had covered up sexual crimes against minors. [nL8N1PP59S]

The investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, starts his work in New York on Saturday when he is due to meet Juan Carlos Cruz, who says he was sexually abused when he was a teenager in Chile by a priest called Fernando Karadima.

Karadima was found guilty in a Vatican investigation in 2011 of abusing teenage boys over many years. Karadima always denied the allegations and Barros denied accusations that he witnessed Karadima carrying out the abuse and then tried to cover it up.

The Vatican banned Karadima from public ministry and ordered him to follow a life of prayer and penitence, but he avoided criminal prosecution because under Chilean law too much time had elapsed since the offences. Now 87, he still lives in Chile.

In a telephone interview with Reuters from his home in the United States last week, Cruz said Pope Francis had "set the clock back years and years" with comments made in Chile that cast doubt on the credibility of victims of abuse. [nL8N1PZ5OP]

During his visit, the pope testily told a Chilean reporter: "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?"

Francis later apologised to victims, acknowledging that his choice of words and tone of voice had "wounded many".

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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