ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — 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.
In a wide-ranging press conference en route to Rome from his first-ever visit to the United States, Francis also declared conscientious objection a “human right,” explained his admiration for American nuns and discussed his own star power, which was fully on display during his six-day, three-city tour.
He also invented a new Italian word to describe the exuberant reception he received in New York City: “stralimitata” — roughly, “beyond all limits.”
On his last day in the U.S., Francis on Sunday met with five survivors of sexual abuse and issued a warning to bishops that they would be held accountable if they failed to protect 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 agreed to create a tribunal in the Vatican to prosecute these bishops for abuse of office and has accepted the resignations of three U.S. bishops who mishandled abuse cases.
Francis defended his words of consolation to U.S. bishops in Washington earlier in the week, saying he wanted to acknowledge that they 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 themselves, meeting with five survivors, including people who had been molested not only by priests but also abused by family members or educators. 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 another issue pressing on the American church, Francis was asked about the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for several days after she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples despite the Supreme Court’s ruling making same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Davis said such marriages violate her Apostolic Christian faith.
Francis said he didn’t know the case in detail, but he upheld conscientious objection as a human right.