By Caroline Stauffer
LIMA (Reuters) - Pope Francis made a forceful call to combat corruption in Peru on Monday, calling it a social "virus" a month after the Andean nation's president pardoned a former autocratic leader who had been jailed for graft and human rights abuses.
As Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski sat beside him, the pope said that tackling corruption required "a greater culture of transparency among public entities, the private sector and civil society - and I don't exclude Church communities," in some of his most direct words on the theme yet.
While the Argentine pontiff, Latin America's first pope, has condemned corruption on past trips, it is rare for him to mention it alongside a leader, particularly one who has been tainted by scandal like Kuczynski.
"Everything being done to combat this social scourge deserves our utmost attention and help ... This is a battle that involves all of us," the head of the Roman Catholic Church said in a speech outside the presidential palace in downtown Lima.
Latin American countries from Brazil to Argentina and Mexico have been gripped by corruption scandals involving billions of dollars of graft and high-level politicians and executives, many tied to Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht [ODBES.UL].
In Peru, a former president has been detained, while Kuczynski was nearly impeached in December for not revealing that a company he used to run did business with Odebrecht. Kuczynski denies wrongdoing.
Days after surviving an impeachment vote in Congress, Kuczynski pardoned former president Alberto Fujimori less than halfway through his 25-year sentence, in what was widely seen as a political deal to allow Kuczynski to stay in office.
Kuczynski, 79, cited medical reasons for granting Fujimori the pardon and has said it was fundamentally about forgiveness. He denies it was part of a backroom deal.
Francis did not address the pardon directly. Nor has he granted requests to meet with families of victims of death squads Fujimori unleashed to combat a Maoist-inspired insurgency during his 1990-2000 rule.
Kuczynski welcomed Francis, saying Peru was healing the wounds of 30 years ago and the pope's visit had given the country a push towards peace and dialogue.
Facing Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker, the pope said corruption was preventable, and required a commitment from all.
"I encourage and urge all those in positions of authority, in whatever sphere, to insist on this path in order to bring your people and your land the security born of feeling that Peru is a place of hope and opportunity for all, and not just for a few," he said to applause.
During a previous trip to Latin America, in Paraguay in 2015, Francis said: "Corruption is the plague, it's the gangrene of society." Hours after returning to the Peruvian capital from the Amazonian city of Puerto Maldonado on Friday, the pope continued the sickness metaphor.
"How much evil is done to our Latin American people and the democracies of this continent by this social virus, a phenomenon that infects everything, with the greatest harm being done to the poor and Mother Earth," he said.
(Reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Additional reporting by Philip Pullella, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)