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Pope says he found Philly 'demonstrative' and 'pious'

ROME - The warmth of the American people was the big surprise of his journey to the United States, Pope Francis said during his return flight from Philadelphia to Rome Sunday night.

ROME - The warmth of the American people was the big surprise of his journey to the United States, Pope Francis said during his return flight from Philadelphia to Rome Sunday night.

"In Washington the welcome was warm but more formal," he told journalists during an hour-long news conference aboard the plane.

"New York was a bit exuberant, Philadelphia very demonstrative. So: three different kinds of welcome."

Francis ended his six-day visit with a Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway that marked the close of the eighth international World Meeting of Families. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to see him and to take part in the Mass, some kneeling on asphalt.

"I was very struck by this welcome, but also by the religious ceremonies and the piety of the people. You could see the people pray," he said, "and this struck me a lot."

Francis said Masses in each of the six Cuban and American cities he visited.

He said that after a papal visit like this one he asks God to "protect all those people who saw me" and to forgive him if his efforts fell short.

Francis also defended the controversial words of sympathy he extended Wednesday to American bishops for the anguish the clergy sex abuse crisis has caused them.

A small part of a long address at Washington's St. Matthew Cathedral, those remarks were swiftly condemned by sex abuse victims, including some in Philadelphia, who asserted that many American bishops had fostered and prolonged the abuse of minors by reassigning abusive priests and concealing their crimes. Some said Francis' remarks had been insensitive.

Asked by The Inquirer about that reaction, Francis told reporters he had not been seeking to minimize the great emotional damage of clergy abuse, but only to acknowledge to his fellow bishops what a "tribulation" it had been for them.

"I felt the need to express compassion for what happened. They suffered a lot," he said.

In his lengthy response to the question, he said that "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 continued, "and the words of comfort were not to say 'Don't worry, that was nothing.' No, no, no."

Sexual abuse by a cleric is a "sacrilege," he said, and that even though children are abused in families, schools, and sports program, "when a priest abuses it is very serious," because the first duty of a priest is to "bring children to God and emotional maturity."

John Allen, a longtime member of the Vatican press corps and author of numerous books on the Catholic church who was on the plane, said it was the first time he knew of that a pope had publicly acknowledged that Catholic bishops had concealed sexual abuse by their clergy.

Early in the last decade, investigations by news media, prosecutors and eventually the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops revealed that nearly five percent of Catholic priests had sexually molested minors between 1950 and 2000. Catholic dioceses have paid an estimated $2.5 billion to compensate victims, and a dozen have filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

In response to a question from another reporter, Francis said he knows of cases where people lose their faith or even become atheist because they or a family member are abused by a priest. He said that under those circumstances, he felt certain that God, "who is nicer than I am," would accept such a person into heaven despite their apostasy.

He said he understands when victims of abuse don't forgive their assailants, and said he prayed for them both.

Francis replied in Spanish to questions posed in English, Spanish, French and Italian. There was no official translation of his remarks.

He said he was pleased at recent news that rebel groups in Colombia had agreed to a peace accord to be signed in March, and that he had been able to play a role in bringing both sides together.

Asked about the refugee crisis in parts of the Middle East and Europe - which he told Congress on Thursday was the worst since World War II - Francis said he was vigorously opposed to the use of walls to bar émigrés.

"You know what happens to walls," he said. "All walls crumble. Today, tomorrow or in a hundred years - they will crumble. They are not a solution.

"It is true that Europe is going through a difficult time right now. But [a solution] must be found through dialogue between countries. Walls are never the solution. Instead, bridges are. Always. Always."

He indicated he is not receptive to any change in church doctrine that would allow for Catholics to divorce and remarry without an annulment. "It's doctrine," he said. "It's an indissoluble sacrament."

But he said recognizes that the annulment process, which the church requires for a divorced person to remarry, had become cumbersome and difficult, which is why is taking steps to streamline it.

He told how, as the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had strongly discouraged priests not to marry women who felt obliged to marry because they were already pregnant. Such marriages often failed, he said.

The forthcoming Synod on the Family, which he will convene Oct. 8 in Rome, should look at better ways to prepare couples for marriage, he said.

He also said the ordination of women "cannot be done" because Pope John Paul II studied the matter and said so clearly.

"Not because women don't have the capacity," he said. "Look, in the church, women are more important than men, because the church is a woman. It is "la" church, not "il" church. The church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests."

Francis said he supported the right of government officials who "conscientiously object" to providing documents for same-sex marriage to refuse to do so. "Conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right," he said.

The pontiff concluded by denying that his great popularity around the world, and particularly in the United States, makes him a "star."

"How many stars have we seen that go out and fall?" he asked.

Stardom, he said, "is a fleeting thing.

"The title of popes is 'servants of God,' " he added. "To be servants of God does not pass."

doreilly@phillynews.com

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