Pope Francis talks with journalists as he flies back to Rome after his visit to Brazil July 29, 2013
Pope Francis talks with journalists as he flies back to Rome after his visit to Brazil July 29, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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Reuters
Pope Francis and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone step off a plane after returning from their trip to Brazil at Ciampino airport, south of Rome, July 29, 2013. Photo by Reuters

Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn't judge priests 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.

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.

Francis' remarks came Monday during a plane journey back to the Vatican from his first foreign trip in Brazil.

Francis also said during the press conference he was considering a Holy Land visit next year.

Francis accepted an invitation to visit Israel from Shimon Peres when the Israeli president was at the Vatican in April. No date for the visit was set at the time. Francis was close to the Jewish community in his native Argentina.

His predecessor, Benedict XVI,  went to Israel in 2009, and the pope before that, John Paul II, visited in 2000.

Francis 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 news magazine 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.

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.