UPDATE: It turns out the only private meeting held at the venue was with one of Francis’ former students, who is gay, and his partner.
The Religious Right legal group Liberty Counsel boasted in a statement and at least two fundraising emails this week that their client, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, had a private meeting with Pope Francis during his recent visit to Washington and that the pope thanked Davis for her courage in denying marriage licenses to gay couples.
“Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we're doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything,” Davis said in an interview following the meeting.
While the pope did speak vaguely about the rights of conscientious objectors (a term that does not describe Davis), the Holy See — unlike Liberty Counsel — remained mum about the meeting.
But it seems that Davis’ lawyers attempt to paint Pope Francis as a Davis supporter has forced the Vatican to issue a statement claiming that the encounter between the pope and Davis has been greatly exaggerated, as she was one of dozens of people who met the pope only briefly at a stop in Washington, D.C.
Liberty Counsel has already had to retract claims that 100,000 Peruvians held a prayer rally for Davis and that the hosts of “The View” had threatened to kill the clerk.
Gerard O’Connell of the Catholic publication America writes that “a short but clear statement from the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., ... effectively deflates and denies the widespread misinterpretation in much of the media about that encounter.”
At that same time, he said, Pope Francis also “met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City.”
He explained that “such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope’s characteristic kindness and availability.” But, he added, “the only real audience granted by the pope at the nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.”
Then, in the key passage of the statement, Lombardi clarified that “The pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”
Father Thomas Rosica, who frequently assists Lombardi on matters relating to the Anglophone world, told reporters that there were “several dozens of people” in the Nunciature (the Holy See’s Embassy) for before the pope departed for New York. He said the pope would “have known little” about Mrs. Davis, apart from her name, and found it hard to give credence to Davis’s account that she had spent 15 minutes alone with the pope. There simply was not time, he said; the time was very limited and the people were scattered in small groups in different locations on the one floor of the building, and each had a very brief greeting with him, nothing more. Moreover, Rosica said, each of those present had been cleared by the U.S. Secret Service before entering the nunciature.
CBS News reports that a “ highly placed source inside the Vatican claims the Pope was blindsided” by the Davis meeting, adding that “[n]ot even Lombardi knew about it ahead of time, nor did the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which would have opposed it.”
“A close advisor to Pope Francis tweeted that the Pope was, in his words, ‘exploited’ by those who set up what the CBS 2 source says was a ‘meeting that never should have taken place,’” the report continued.
Reuters also spoke to a Vatican official who expressed a “sense of regret” about the meeting.
However, Davis’ lawyer and Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver is holding firm in his claim that the two had a much more meaningful encounter:
However, Davis' lawyer, Mat Staver, told The Associated Press that the Vatican initiated the meeting as an affirmation of her right to be conscientious objector.
"We wouldn't expect the pope to weigh in on the particulars of any case," Staver said Friday.
He said Vatican personnel initiated the meeting on Sept. 14, the day she returned to work, saying the pope wanted to meet her. He said Vatican security picked up her and her husband from their hotel and told her to change her hairdo so she wouldn't be recognized since the Vatican wanted the meeting kept secret.
Staver disputed a Vatican spokesman's claims that the pope only met Davis in a receiving line. He said the couple was in a separate room with Francis and Vatican personnel.
News of the meeting sent shockwaves through the U.S. church, with Davis' supporters saying it showed the pope backed her cause and opponents questioning whether the pope had been duped into meeting with her.
Initially the Vatican only reluctantly confirmed the meeting but offered no comment.
On Friday, Lombardi met with Francis and issued a fuller statement to "contribute to an objective understanding of what transpired." Francis has made clear he dislikes being used for political ends, and Lombardi's statement appeared intended to make clear that the encounter should in no way be exploited.
An assistant to Lombardi, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, said he believed the pope would have been given a list of names of the several dozen people who were invited to the embassy to bid farewell as he left Washington, but was unaware of the details of her case or any possible implications of the meeting.
"I don't think he knew the details, the full biographies of each person, except for the names of the people there," Rosica said.