Pope Francis has defended his words of consolation to U.S. bishops over the priest sex abuse scandal but says — for the first time — that those who covered up for abusers are guilty of wrongdoing.
Francis made the comments en route home to Rome after his first-ever visit to the United States, where on Sunday he met with five survivors of abuse and issued a warning to bishops that they would be held accountable for protecting their flocks.
"Those who covered this up are guilty," he said. "There are even some bishops who covered this up. It's something horrible."
While the Vatican has cracked down on priests who rape and molest children in recent years, it has long been accused of turning a blind eye to the bishops who moved abusers around rather than report them to police. Francis has decided to create a tribunal in the Vatican to prosecute these bishops for abuse of office, and he has accepted the resignations of three U.S. bishops who mishandled cases.
Francis defended his words of consolation to U.S. bishops in Washington earlier in the week, saying he wanted to acknowledge that they as an episcopate had suffered too. Advocates for victims had denounced his praise as tone-deaf.
"The words of comfort weren't to say 'Don't worry, it's nothing.' No, no, no. It was that 'It was so awful, and I imagine that you have wept so much,'" he said.
On Sunday, Francis directed his attention to the victims of abuse, meeting with five survivors. He apologized to them that often their accusations weren't taken seriously and promised to hold bishops accountable.
Francis said he understands how a victim or a relative of a victim could refuse to forgive the priest who abused.
"I pray for them, and I don't judge them," Francis said.
He recalled that in his previous meeting with survivors of sex abuse, in July 2014, one told him that her mother had lost her faith and died an atheist after learning that a priest had violated her child.
"I understand this woman. I understand, and God who is better than me, understands," Francis said. "And I am sure that God received this woman. Because what was groped and destroyed was her flesh, the flesh of her daughter. I understand. I cannot judge someone who cannot forgive."
In a wide-ranging press conference, Francis said he was surprised by the warmth of the welcome he received in the U.S., saying there were no insults or provocations despite criticism from conservatives ahead of the trip over his environmental and economic messages.
"In Washington, it was a warm welcome but a bit more formal," Francis said. "In New York, a bit 'beyond all limits,'" he said, laughing and gesturing with his arms to describe with a new word the exuberance of the Big Apple: "stralimitata."
"In Philadelphia, very expressive. Different ways, but the same welcome."
He said he was also impressed by the piety of Americans and gave thanks there were no incidents during the trip.
"No provocations, no challenges," he said. "They were all well-behaved, normal. No insults, nothing bad."
Conservative American commentators had been deeply critical of Francis' priorities prior to the trip, blasting his eco-focus as flawed and even criticizing his decision to streamline the church's annulment process by saying it amounted to a "Catholic divorce."
Francis denied the change would facilitate divorce, saying it merely simplifies the church's process for determining if a marriage was valid.
Francis once again pronounced his love for American nuns, whom he extolled publicly on several occasions during his visit. He said they had worked "marvels" in education and health care in the United States and were simply "great."
"The people of the United States love their sisters," Francis said. "I don't know how much they love their priests, but they love their nuns. And they are great. They are great, great women."
His praise was noteworthy, given the Vatican under his predecessor had launched a crackdown on the largest umbrella group of U.S. sisters, accusing them of straying from orthodoxy and not emphasizing doctrine enough. Under Francis, the takeover ended two years early without any major changes. A separate Vatican investigation into the quality of life of America's sisters similarly ended up thanking them for their selfless service.
Francis on two occasions during the trip gave the sisters public recognition and thanks. He also visited with one group of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have challenged the Obama administration's health care insurance mandate, to offer them his support.
Francis was asked if his backing for religious freedom and objection of conscience extended to government workers — a reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky worker who refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex marriages.
Without citing any case in particular, Francis declared that the right to an objection of conscience was a human right.
"And if a person doesn't allow an objection of conscience, they're denying a right," he said.
After speeches in Congress and the United Nations and deeply moving gestures visiting with the homeless, immigrants, prison inmates and schoolchildren, it was suggested to Francis that he had become something of a "star" in America.
Francis dismissed the idea, saying power is a passing thing, and that true power is to serve others.
"I must still go forward on this path of service because I feel like I haven't done all I can," he said.
And besides, he said, stars eventually fade away.
"Being a servant to the servant of God is beautiful. And it doesn't fade away," he noted.