Pope Acknowledges Cover-Ups by Bishops

Pope Francis aboard the papal jet on Monday. He condemned abusive priests as "sacrilegious."

ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRPLANE — Hours after meeting with sexual abuse victims in Philadelphia, Pope Francis on Sunday night again strongly condemned priests who molested children as “sacrilegious” and publicly acknowledged that bishops had covered up abuse cases.

“When a priest abuses, it is very grave because the vocation of the priest is to make that boy, that girl grow toward the love of God,” Francis said. “For this reason, the church is strong on this, and one must not cover these things up. Those who covered this up are guilty. Even some bishops who covered this up.”

Francis spoke during a wide-ranging news conference aboard the papal airliner after his trip to Cuba and the United States. He remarked on a variety of topics, including the issue of conscientious objection, the peace talks in Colombia, the so-called Roman Catholic divorce and the construction of border walls to block migrants in Europe — and he tossed in a grinning endorsement of New York.

After a trip in which huge crowds turned out to see him, Francis on Sunday tried to salve the one major contentious point that erupted during his time in the United States: his comments on sexual abuse. Many victims were infuriated after Francis praised and comforted American bishops in Washington for their handling of the crisis before he met with any victims.

The controversy stewed until Sunday morning in Philadelphia, when Francis met with a group of abuse victims and their family members. Later that morning, Francis condemned the sexual abuse crisis during a meeting with global bishops. On the plane, Francis was asked why he had felt the need to offer bishops comfort and consolation even as feelings about the crisis remained raw in cities like Philadelphia.

“I felt the need to express compassion because something really terrible happened,” the pope replied. “And many of them suffered who did not know of this.”

He added, “What happened was a great tribulation.”

He then acknowledged that some bishops had covered up abuse cases. As pope, Francis has removed a handful of bishops for their roles in protecting abusive priests, and he said the comfort he had offered the American bishops should not be interpreted as minimizing the scandal.

“It’s a terrible thing, and the words of comfort were not to say, ‘Don’t worry, that was nothing,’ ” he said. “No, no, no. But that it was so bad that I imagine that you cried hard. That was the sense of what I meant.”

On other topics, Francis expressed hopes that a tentative peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, would be realized by the March deadline. He said he had spoken twice to President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, while Vatican diplomats had also been involved.

“I was very happy, and I felt like I was part of it,” he said.

The Argentine pope has regularly spoken out on behalf of migrants, and on Sunday he again described the deep roots of the migrant crisis while dismissing border barriers, like the one being constructed in Hungary, as pointless. He recognized that Europe was facing a difficult situation but promoted dialogue as a solution, not walls.

He defended his recent changes to Roman Catholic rules on marriage annulments, saying the changes had improved the system but had not transformed it into an administrative “Catholic divorce.”

Asked about government employees who refused to discharge their duties as an act of religious conscience, including refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, Francis did not offer specifics but described conscientious objection as “a human right.” It was unclear whether he was aware of the recent controversy in which a county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Davis, refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, citing her religious beliefs.

Finally, Francis expressed gratitude for the “warmth of the people, so lovable,” that he encountered in the United States. He described the welcome in Washington as “warm, but more formal.” The reception in Philadelphia, he said, was “very demonstrative.”

But for New York, the pope broke into a grin and started waving his hands, searching for words.

“New York was a bit exuberant,” he said.

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