ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT -

Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he won'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. "We shouldn't marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society."

Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men who had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory in his first news conference as pope, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

The comments did not signal any change in church policy. Catholic teaching still holds that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." But they indicated a shift in tone under Francis' young papacy and an emphasis on a church that is more inclusive and merciful rather than critical and disciplinary.

Gay leaders were buoyed by Francis' non-judgmental approach, saying changing the tone was progress in itself, although for some, the encouragement was tempered by Francis talk of gay clergy's "sins."

"Basically, I'm overjoyed at the news," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the U.S.-based New Ways Ministry, a group promoting justice and reconciliation for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people and the wider church community.

"For decades now, we've had nothing but negative comments about gay and lesbian people coming from the Vatican," DeBernardo said in a telephone interview from Maryland.

The largest U.S. gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the pope's remarks "reflect a hopeful change in tone."

Still, said Chad Griffin, the HRC president, as long as gay individuals, couples and youth alike "are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they were born — how God made them — then the church is sending a deeply harmful message."

In Italy, where politicians are generally sensitive to Vatican policy, Italy's first openly gay governor, Nichi Vendola, urged fellow politicians to learn a lesson from the pope.

"I believe that if politics had one-millionth of the capacity to ... listen that the pope does, it would be better able to help people who suffer," he said.

Francis also said he wanted a greater role for women in the church, though he insisted that they cannot become priests.

He was funny and candid during the 82 minutes he spent with journalists on board the plane returning from Brazil. He didn't dodge a single question, and even thanked the journalist who raised allegations contained in an Italian news magazine that one of his trusted monsignors was involved in a gay tryst.

Francis said he investigated the allegations according to canon law and found nothing to back them up.

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.

Gov. Vendola, who leads the southern Puglia region, praised the pope for drawing a clear line between homosexuality and pedophilia.

"In only one blow, he carried out a very brilliant operation, separating the theme of homosexuality from that of pedophilia," Vendola said in a chat with journalists. "We know that a part of reactionary clerical thought plays on the confusion between these two completely different categories."

The directness of Francis' comments suggested that he wants to put the matter of the monsignor behind him, while also setting a new tone of openness as he focuses on his key priority of reforming the Holy See bureaucracy.

Francis was also asked about reports suggesting that a group of gay clergymen exert undue influence on Vatican policy. Italian news media reported this year that the allegations of what they call the "gay lobby" contributed to Benedict's decision to resign.

The term "gay lobby" is bandied about with abandon in the Italian media, and is decidedly vague. Interpretations of what it means have ranged from the benign concept of a group of celibate gay priests who are friends, to a suggestion that a group of sexually active gay priests use blackmail to exert influence on Vatican decision-making.

Stressing that Catholic social teaching calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized, Francis said he would not condone anyone using private information for blackmail or to exert pressure.

"A lot is written about this 'gay lobby. I still haven't found anyone at the Vatican who has 'gay' on his business card," Francis said, chuckling. "You have to distinguish between the fact that someone is gay and the fact of being in a 'lobby.'"

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author and commentator, saw the pope's remarks as a sign of mercy.

"Today Pope Francis has, once again, lived out the Gospel message of compassion for everyone," he said in an emailed statement.