VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis on Friday (May 20) came under fire for meet Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon suspected of covering up for a paedophile priest in a scandal that has rocked the Church in France.
"There was a meeting, nothing out of the ordinary," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told AFP, without revealing the purpose or content of the talks.
A support group for the alleged victims in the French scandal voiced regret that Pope Francis had met with Cardinal Barbarin while magistrates are still mulling over whether the cardinal should face criminal charges. "We would have liked to have been received instead of the cardinal, we note that once again it's the victims who are sidelined," Mr Bertrand Virieux, a co-founder of Lyon-based group La Parole Liberee, told AFP.
Mr Virieux said he had written to the Pope in March seeking an audience.
The surprise meeting came three days after the Pope was quoted as saying it would be "nonsensical and imprudent" to seek Cardinal Barbarin's resignation at this stage, arguing that would be to imply he was guilty of potential criminal charges against him.
French examining magistrates are currently carrying out a preliminary investigation to decide whether to pursue charges against the archbishop for his handling of the allegations against Bernard Preynat, a priest in his diocese who has been charged with sex abuse.
Preynat was charged in January with sexual assaults on four boy scouts between 1986 and 1991. An abuse survivors group says it has identified more than 50 victims.
Lyon prosecutors in March opened a preliminary probe into when Cardinal Barbarin and his staff became aware of the allegations against Preynat and whether they failed to comply with legal requirements to pass on knowledge of a crime to the police.
According to the diocese, Cardinal Barbarin first received testimony from an alleged victim in mid-2014 and relieved Preynat of his duties in May 2015.
Pope Francis said in an interview with French Catholic newspaper La Croix this week that he believed Cardinal Barbarin had acted appropriately.
The Pontiff said Cardinal Barbarin had "taken the necessary measures, and had the situation in hand.
"He is brave, creative, a missionary. We should now wait for the outcome of the civilian judicial procedure."
Victims groups reacted angrily to the expression of support, saying Pope Francis could not possibly know all the details of a case they say highlights once again the reluctance of the Church to hand paedophile priests over to the criminal authorities.
Mr Virieux also expressed regret over the timing of Pope Francis's meeting with the cardinal on the same day as an important court hearing in the charged priest's case "which will now be overshadowed by this meeting".
Lyon's appeal court was on Friday holding a pre-trial hearing on Preynat's appeal against an earlier ruling that the alleged abuse is no longer subject to prosecution on statute of limitations grounds.
Cardinal Barbarin admitted last month to "errors in the management and nomination of certain priests", but vehemently denied any cover-up.
Pope Francis came to power promising a crackdown on cover-ups and a zero tolerance approach to abuse itself, which he famously described as being akin to taking part in a Satanic mass.
But the Barbarin case, the recent Royal Commission hearing on Australia's Cardinal George Pell's alleged involvement in cover-ups and the lenient treatment of abusive Italian priest Mauro Inzoli have reopened old wounds.
After decades of scandals that have badly damaged the Church's standing in many countries, victims complain they are still not being listened to, that bishops will not hand priests over to police and that a conspiracy of silence remains in place.
Pope Francis had put in place legal structures enabling paedophile clerics to be tried by the Vatican's criminal court. And he won praise for establishing an independent advisory panel on the issue and for meeting victims in Rome and during his visit to the United States last year.
But he has also drawn criticism for declining to repeat the gesture in Mexico or for the goup that travelled to Rome during the Pell hearings.
And the future of his advisory panel is uncertain after British member Peter Saunders was forced off it after complaining that he had been tricked by the Pope into taking part in a whitewashing exercise.