ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT - A remarkably candid Pope Francis struck a conciliatory stance toward gays Monday, saying "who am I to judge" when it comes to the sexual orientation of priests.

"We shouldn't marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society," Francis said during an extraordinary 82-minute exchange with reporters aboard his plane returning from his first papal trip, to celebrate World Youth Day in Brazil.

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" the pope asked.

Francis' first news conference as pope was wide-ranging and open, touching on everything from the greater role he believes women should have in the Catholic Church to the troubled Vatican Bank.

While his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, responded to only a few pre-selected questions during his papal trips, Francis did not dodge a single query, even thanking the journalist who asked about reports of a "gay lobby" inside the Vatican and allegations that one of his trusted monsignors was involved in a gay tryst.

Francis said he investigated the allegations against the clergyman according to canon law and found nothing to back them up. He took journalists to task for reporting on the matter, saying it concerned issues of sin, not crimes like sexually abusing children. And when someone sins and confesses, he said, God not only forgives - he forgets.

"We don't have the right to not forget," he said.

While the comments did not signal a change in Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered," 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.

Gays embrace pope's stance

Francis' stance contrasted markedly with that of Benedict, who signed a document in 2005 that said men who had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests.

Gay leaders were buoyed by Francis' approach, saying the change in 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 that promotes justice and reconciliation for gay, lesbian, bisexual 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 "represent a significant change in tone."

Still, said Chad Griffin, the HRC president, as long as gays "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."

Francis also said he wanted a greater role for women in the church, though he insisted "the door is closed" to ordaining them as priests.

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.

Snippets of news

Speaking in Italian with occasional lapses in his native Spanish, Francis dropped a few nuggets of news:

- He said he is thinking about traveling to the Holy Land next year and is considering invitations from Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

- The planned Dec. 8 canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will likely be changed - perhaps until the weekend after Easter - because road conditions in December would be dangerously icy for people from John Paul's native Poland traveling to the ceremony by bus.

Francis also solved the mystery that had been circulating since he was pictured boarding the plane to Rio carrying his own black bag, an unusual break with Vatican protocol.

"The keys to the atomic bomb weren't in it," Francis quipped, referring to the case that accompanies U.S. presidents with nuclear launch codes.

The bag, he said, contained a razor, a prayer book, his agenda and a book on St. Terese of Lisieux, to whom he is particularly devoted.

There has been much attention made to the remarks of Pope Francis about lesbians and gays. He said that "If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them. They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem. They are our brothers.

Here are some comments from local officials about those remarks.

Bishop Michael Sheridan, of the Colorado Springs Catholic Diocese:

This has been the position of the church all along. The way I read his remarks is that a priest can be homosexual and a priest if he leads a holy and chaste life. It doesn't put a moral value on being homosexual, anymore than it says heterosexuals are good or evil. It is what you are. But if a heterosexual acts outside a marriage, that is wrong. The pope is distinguishing between the person and the act.

He is reiterating the documents of the church regarding the dignity of every human being. The church has issued several documents regarding ministry to homosexual persons and consistently has said every person possesses inherent dignity.

Charles Irwin, executive director of Colorado Springs Pride Center:

I'm glad that someone in his position is saying that those who are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) shouldn't be marginalized. But the proof will be in the pudding. I will wait and see if it is backed up with action, such as same sex marriage equality and full sanction of gay priests. I want to see equality, don't seerate peopelout of the mix. He said women should be given a bigger role in the church, but that they are still being kept from the priesthood.That's not equality.

KarnacqSwanson, cqdirector of communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Denver:

I think the important part of message is to understand that the clear teachings of the church says that homosexual inclination is not sinful and that the church has always expected priests to live lives of celibate chastity. What the pope said does not contradict that at all. He is underlining that every person who has an inclination, if they are eagerly seeking God and seeking to live according to the teachings of the church, then he is on a good path.