Pope Francis Admits Church Covered Up Rampant Sex Abuse by Priests

On his way back to Rome, Pope Francis clarified his views, and intensified his criticism of predator priests and those who protected them.

09.28.15 11:25 AM ET

ROME — The “Vat pack” of chosen journalists aboard the papal plane from Philadelphia to Rome was treated to a 47-minute in-flight press conference with Pope Francis that ran the gamut from his amazement at the love fest poured out for him to some pretty tough love for his Church.

Vatican Radio provides a complete transcript of the inflight presser and Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa’s Vatican Insider provides a succinct analysis. “The Pope talked about clerical sex abuse against minors, saying he understands those families that cannot forgive,” Tornielli writes. “He spoke about the issue of communion for remarried divorcees and the recent reform on marital nullity, explaining that it does not equate to ‘Catholic divorce.’” 

The pontiff even touched on religious freedom regarding a question that alluded to, but did not specifically name, Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis’s conscientious objection and refusal to sign same-sex marriage licenses.  “It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right,” Francis said, according to the Vatican Radio transcript. “It is a human right.”

On the subject of clerical sex abuse, which Pope Francis addressed at length during a Mass with American bishops in Philadelphia, the pope told reporters aboard the plane, “I wouldn’t say an apotheosis but almost a sacrilege. We know abuses are everywhere: in families, in neighborhoods, in schools, in gyms. But when a priest abuses it is very serious because the vocation of the priest is to make that boy, that girl, grow towards the love of God, toward maturity, and towards good,” he said.

“Instead this is squashed and this is nearly a sacrilege and he betrayed his vocation, the calling of the Lord. 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 and the words of comfort were not to say: ‘Don’t worry, that was nothing’… no, no, no, but ‘it was so bad that I imagine that you cried hard’… that was the sense of what I meant and today I spoke strongly.”

Francis also told reporters that he was impressed with the American welcome. “It was my first visit. I’d never been here before. What surprised me was the warmth, the warmth of the people, so lovable. It was a beautiful thing and also different: in Washington the welcome was warm but more formal; New York was a bit exuberant. Philadelphia very expressive. Three different kinds of welcome,” he said.  “I was very struck by this kindness and welcome but also by the religious ceremonies and also by the piety, the religiosity of the people... you could see the people pray and this struck me a lot. ... everything was good. No challenge. No provocation. Everyone was polite. No insults and nothing bad.”

Looking ahead to the Synod next month, which is expected to cause friction among conservative and liberal Catholics on issues like allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion and same-sex unions, Francis seemed to acknowledge the tough work ahead while clarifying that new rules on Catholic annulments are not intended as a Catholic divorce. “What is put in discussion seems a bit simplistic to me to say that the Synod is the solution for these people and that they can have communion. That’s not the only solution,” he said, according to Vatican Radio. “For example, young people don’t get married. They don’t want to get married. It’s a pastoral problem for the Church. Another problem: the affective maturity for a marriage. Another problem: faith. ‘Do I believe that this is forever? Yes, yes, yes, I believe.’ ‘But do you believe it?’ The preparation for a wedding: I think so often that to become a priest there’s a preparation for eight years, and then, it’s not definite, the Church can take the clerical state away from you. But, for something lifelong, they do four courses! Four times… Something isn’t right.”

When asked about the current migration crisis gripping Europe, Francis said the problems that cause people to flee are not new. “When I think of Africa… this is a bit simplistic. But I see it as an example. It comes to me to think about Africa, “the exploited continent.” Europesn “went to pick up the slaves there, then it’s great resources. It’s the exploited continent,” he said. “And, now the wars, tribal or not. But they have economic interests behind them. And, I think that instead of exploiting a continent or a nation, make investments there instead so the people are able to work and this crisis would have been avoided.”

When he was asked about barriers and building walls and fences as Hungary is doing along its borders, he was poignant, saying that bridges, not walls are the solution. “You know what happens to all walls. All of them. All walls fall. Today, tomorrow or in 100 years, they will fall. It’s not a solution,” he said. “The wall isn’t a solution. In this moment, Europe is in difficulty, it’s true. We have to be intelligent. We must find solutions. We must encourage dialogue between different nations, to find them. Walls are never solutions. But bridges are, always, always.”