ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT (TheBlaze/AP) — Pope Francis seemingly reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn’t judge priests who are not sexually active for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference as he returned from his first foreign trip.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked, issuing comments that are capturing headlines around the globe.

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

Of course, he was referring to priests who are not sexually-active. The Wall Street Journal has more:

Fielding questions from reporters during the first news conference of his young papacy, the pontiff broached the delicate question of how he would respond to learning that a cleric in his ranks was gay, though not sexually active. For decades, the Vatican has regarded homosexuality as a “disorder,” and Pope Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI formally barred men with what the Vatican deemed “deep-seated” homosexuality from entering the priesthood. [...]

Never before had a pope spoken out in defense of gay priests in the Catholic ministry, said Vatican analysts. Past popes have traditionally treated homosexuality as an obstacle to priestly celibacy, and the Vatican has sent extensive instructions to Catholic seminaries on how to restrict gay candidates from the priesthood.

Who Am I to Judge?: Pope Francis Issues Comments About Gays Who Search for the Lord

Pope Francis disembarks as he arrives at Ciampino Rome’s international airport from Brazil on July 29, 2013. Pope Francis returned to Rome after leading a giant beach mass in Brazil for three million pilgrims, ending his historic trip to reignite Catholic passion with pleas for a humbler Church. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Clearly, this was a big proclamation. Francis’ remarks came Monday during a plane journey back to the Vatican from his first foreign trip in Brazil.

He was funny and candid during a news conference that lasted almost an hour and a half. He didn’t dodge a single question, even thanking the journalist who raised allegations reported by an Italian newsmagazine that one of his trusted monsignors was involved in a scandalous gay tryst.

Francis said he investigated and found nothing to back up the allegations.

Francis was asked about Italian media reports suggesting that a group within the church tried to blackmail fellow church officials with evidence of their homosexual activities. Italian media reported this year that the allegations contributed to Benedict’s decision to resign.

Who Am I to Judge?: Pope Francis Issues Comments About Gays Who Search for the Lord

Pope Francis smiles before departing for Rome after concluding a week-long trip to Brazil, at the air base in Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2013. The head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics hammered home his plea for young believers attending World Youth Day (WYD) to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ as he concluded his trip to Brazil aimed at reigniting Roman Catholic passion. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

While stressing Catholic social teaching that calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized, Francis said it was something else entirely to conspire to use private information for blackmail or to exert pressure.

Francis was responding to reports that a trusted aide was involved in an alleged gay tryst a decade ago. He said he investigated the allegations according to canon law and found nothing to back them up. But he took journalists to task for reporting on the matter, saying the allegations concerned matters of sin, not crimes like sexually abusing children.

And when someone sins and confesses, he said, God not only forgives but forgets.

“We don’t have the right to not forget,” he said.

Other Must-Read Stories:

Other Must-Read Stories