POPE Francis has held out something resembling an olive branch to equality campaigners, after telling reporters it was not his position to judge people on account of their sexuality.

Returning to Rome from Rio de Janeiro today after triumphant World Youth Day celebrations, the Pontiff made his comments on homosexuals after a journalist quizzed him on the supposed "gay lobby" in the Vatican.

"A lot is written on the gay lobby in the Holy See, but I don't have a list of those involved," he said. "The problem is the formation of lobbies of whatever tendency - political, Masonic or gay. Lobbies are not good.

"But if someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him? You should not discriminate against or marginalise these people, and the Catechism says this as well."

The exchange, part of an informal, mid-air press conference, underlined the different approach and personality of Pope Francis compared to his more formal predecessor.

Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated earlier this year, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis has been more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

Reporters on board the Pontiff's aircraft said he was warm and witty during a press questions that lasted almost an hour and a half.

He also made a point of responding to every question - even thanking the journalist who raised allegations by an Italian news magazine that one of his trusted monsignors, Battista Ricca the Vatican bank prelate, had been found trapped in a lift with a rent boy.

He said he had investigated the allegations and found them to be groundless.

He also made the point of distinguishing between a sin, which homosexuality might be considered under church teaching, and crimes, the category that he said paedophilia clearly fell into - perhaps underlining the church's growing tolerance of child-abusing clerics.

The Argentine Pontiff was flying back from Brazil, his first overseas visit, which culminated with a rally on Rio's Copacabana Beach attracting a crowd of nearly three million people.



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