A week after Pope Francis met Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, the Vatican on Friday suggested that she exploited the meeting to promote her views, denied that the pope fully supports her and cast doubt on her account of the encounter.
The Vatican later noted that Francis did have a private "audience" in Washington with a former student of the pope, Yayo Grassi, an openly gay Argentine who along with his longtime partner and some friends met with Francis.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a statement that Grassi, "who had already met other times in the past with the pope, asked to present several friends to the pope during the pope's stay in Washington, D.C."
A video posted online shows Grassi embracing the pope and introducing him to his partner, as well as an Argentine woman and some Asian friends.
The statements together seemed intended to distance the pope from Davis.
Davis spent nearly a week in jail after she defied a Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in the United States. Last week, she said she had met Francis at the Nunciature, the Vatican's U.S. office, in Washington on Sept 24 during his U.S. visit, where she said he told her during a 15-minute meeting to "stay strong."
"Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we're doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything," she told ABC News.
Reports of the meeting between Davis and the pope were taken by conservative groups as evidence that Francis fully supported her refusal to authorize same-sex marriages. Backers of such unions charged that the pope had been used by Davis.
Vatican assistant spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica said Friday that Francis had not invited Davis to a gathering that included dozens of people and suggested that the meeting may have been manipulated by her and her lawyer.
Asked if she had exploited the encounter to promote her beliefs, he replied, "One could say that."
In an earlier statement, Lombardi added: "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."
Rosica said Lombardi had issued the statement after meeting with the pope Friday morning, and added that he doubted Davis had spent 15 minutes in a private meeting with Francis at the Vatican's embassy in Washington.
"I have difficulty believing 15 minutes was spent with one individual, because there simply wasn't time," he said.
"It would have been done on the first floor as the pope is coming down the stairs to leave -- 'Holy Father, these people would like to bid you farewell as you go to New York' -- That is the scenario," he said. "It could have been 15 minutes [with] this grouping of people to say goodbye."
In his statement, Lombardi added: "Pope Francis 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.
"Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope's characteristic kindness and availability," he said.
In response, the Florida-based Liberty Council, which is providing lawyers for Davis, released a statement Friday defending the Davis camp's characterizations of the meeting.
The invitation to meet with Francis "was first conveyed to Kim Davis and her lawyers" on Sept. 14 and confirmed by the Vatican on Sept. 23, the statement said. The Vatican sent a car for Davis and her husband on the following day to take them to the embassy.
"Kim and Joe Davis waited for the private meeting with the pope," the statement said. "There were no other people in the room. This was a private meeting between Pope Francis and Kim and Joe Davis."
Rosica called Davis' situation "a very complex case, it's got all kinds of intricacies."
"Was there an opportunity to brief the pope on this beforehand? I don't think so," he said. "A list is given, these are the people you are going to meet .... Just to have an idea of whose hand you are shaking. Was an in-depth process done? Probably not."
Asked who invited Davis, if not the pope, Rosica said, "Those are questions for the Nunciature."
Kington is a special correspondent.