ROME (RNS) People who cover up clerical sexual abuse should be considered guilty, and God will judge priests who are unrepentant about committing such crimes, Pope Francis told journalists at the end of his U.S. tour.
Speaking aboard the papal plane from Philadelphia to Rome, where the pontiff arrived on Monday (Sept. 28) morning, Francis said clerical abuse is “nearly a sacrilege” and the Catholic Church must take a tough line.
“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, it is a terrible thing,” the pope said, quoted by Vatican Radio.
Francis criticized those who attempted to comfort victims by saying, “Don’t worry that was nothing,” and said abusers who were unrepentant would be judged by God.
“If a person has done wrong, is conscious of what he has done and does not say sorry, I ask God to take him into account,” the pope said. “I forgive him, but he does not receive that forgiveness, he is closed to forgiveness.”
The pontiff urged people to forgive others, although he said he understood that some victims of clerical sexual abuse and their relatives would not be able to do so. Referring to a victim whose mother lost her faith on learning her daughter had been sexually abused by a cleric, the pope said he understood such a reaction.
“Because what was abused, destroyed, was her own flesh, the flesh of her daughter. I understand her. I don’t judge someone who can’t forgive. I pray and I ask God,” the pope said.
Francis met with five people on Sunday who had been sexually abused as children, saying he was “deeply sorry” that their experiences were not heard or believed when they spoke out about the abuse.
“Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children,” the pontiff told the abuse survivors, ahead of a meeting with bishops in which he said “God weeps” over clerical abuse.
On the flight back to Rome, the pope was asked if he supported individuals, including government officials, who refuse to abide by some laws, such as issuing marriage licenses to gays.
“Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right,” Francis said, as reported by Reuters.
Earlier this month a county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Davis, went to jail because she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples following a Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
But it was unclear whether the pope had that case in mind.
“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right,” he said, speaking in Italian.
“And if someone does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right,” he added.
Francis said conscientious objection had to be respected in legal structures. “Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying: ‘This right has merit, this one does not.’”
(Reuters contributed to this report.)
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