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“It is not right in God’s sight to obey men rather than God.”

Pope strongly condemns child sexual abuse; says rejecting gay marriage is ‘human right’

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, the construction of border walls to block migrants in Europe — and he also 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.”

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.”

Government officials have the "human right" to refuse their duties, including the issuing of same-sex marriage licences, if they feel it violates their conscience, the Pope says. The pontiff made the comment to reporters on his flight back to Rome as he reflected on his 10-day trip to Cuba and the US.

Asked specifically about Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to issue gay marriage licences, Pope Francis said he did not know the details of her case, but he upheld conscience objection as a human right.

He said, “It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”

Ms Davis was thrust into the spotlight for her refusal to grant marriage licences to any couples - gay or straight - in the wake of the US Supreme Court ruling in June that effectively legalised same-sex marriage. The 49-year-old has cited her religious beliefs in refusing the requests, sparking a heavy mix of both outrage and support.

Francis said he supported individuals, including those working for the government, who refuse to abide by some laws. He said, “Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying, ‘This right has merit, this one does not’.”

In his wide-ranging news conference en route to Rome, the Pope also defended his words of consolation to US bishops in Washington, saying he wanted to acknowledge they also suffered amid the clergy sex abuse scandal.