Francis' open, charming demeanor faded as he angrily chided critics, including those claiming to have been victims of the priest, who contend Barros buried evidence.
Francis bluntly dismissed that charge as hollow "slander."
"It is calumny," he snapped. "Is that clear?" Denying any evidence against the bishop, he added, "The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I will speak."
In the face of adverse reactions to his comment, Francis allowed that a potential witness against the bishop may see it as a demand to "bring me a letter with the proof" and as a "slap" in the face, but otherwise held his ground.
Victims claim that they can supply evidence but that the pope's hasn't met with them to allow them to state their case.
The standoff became the centerpiece of the Chilean stop on the Jan. 15-21 papal visit to South America.
It isn't unusual, of course, to find opposing views on the same incident. If the pope is right, he deserves praise as a protector of human rights. He will stand as a much-needed champion of fair treatment of the accused.
What potentially lends this controversy particular significance is that it appears to reveal a side of the pope that contrasts with his popular image as a "people of God" leader who ordinarily grants a hearing and dignity to the rank and file of the church. He is a "leveler" who has mocked the pretenses of elite church officials and identified strongly with the poorest and most workaday Catholics in his vast community.
The rebuke to those very Catholics in Chile who appear to fit that profile poses the troubling question. While his denunciation of social ills was in line with his papacy, his outburst in defense of his appointed bishop shocked many observers. The fact that the flare-ups continued over the next days added an element of surprise and hinted at something more profound.