Pope Francis secretly met a Kentucky county clerk last week who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and gave her words of encouragement, her attorney said.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and her husband met with the pope during the Washington leg of his visit to the United States, after the Vatican reached out to her several weeks ago, ABC reported on Wednesday.
“It was really very humbling to even think that he would want to, you know, meet me or know me,” Davis told ABC. “I put my hand out, and he grabbed it, and I hugged him, and he hugged me and he said, ‘Thank you for your courage.'”
“He told me before he left, he said, ‘Stay strong.’ That was a great encouragement,” Davis said.
Davis said knowing that the pope agreed with what she was doing “kind of validates everything.”
ABC said the pope gave Davis a rosary, which she plans to give to her Catholic parents.
Mat Staver, attorney and founder of the Liberty Counsel, told CBS News that the pope met Davis and her husband at the Vatican embassy in Washington last Thursday.
Vatican chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he would neither confirm nor deny the report and that there would be no further statement. This was unusual for the Vatican, which normally issues either denials or confirmations.
The report of the meeting came after Francis largely avoided the contentious issue of same-sex marriage during his historic visit to the United States, where he addressed Congress, met with the homeless and urged the country to welcome immigrants.
The pope, speaking to reporters as he returned home from his 10-day trip to the U.S. and Cuba on Monday, said government officials had a “human right” to refuse to discharge a duty if they felt it violated their conscience.
Staver, whose client was jailed for five days in September for refusing to comply with a judge’s order to issue the licenses in line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, told CBS his team did not want to disclose the meeting until now to avoid interfering with the pope’s broader message during his visit.
“Because we didn’t want the pope’s visit to be overshadowed with Kim Davis,” Staver said in an interview on the network.
During the meeting, the pope told Davis to “stay strong”, Staver said.
Davis has said her beliefs as an Apostolic Christian prevent her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Her church belongs to a Protestant movement known as Apostolic Pentecostalism.
To keep a low profile, Davis went to the Vatican embassy in a sports utility vehicle with her hair in a different style than her normal look, Staver told CBS, adding he was not present.
Conservative Christians, including some Republican presidential candidates, have said Davis is standing up for religious freedom.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which went to court to ensure same-sex couples can obtain marriage licenses in Rowan County, has argued she has a responsibility as an official to issue the licenses, regardless of her views.
The ACLU, in papers filed on Sept. 21 with the judge hearing the case, asked the court to require Davis to stop making alterations to the licenses, such as removing any reference to the Rowan County clerk’s office.