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Pope Francis has said the Catholic Church should not be judged by modern standards over sexual abuse scandals.

This was as he refused to answer awkward questions in a carefully choreographed press conference on board the papal plane yesterday.

Heading home from a four-day tour of the Baltics, the pope’s spokesman said Francis would only take questions about the trip despite a bombshell report revealing that 3,700 children had been sexually assaulted by priests in Germany. 

He did eventually get to the thorny topic and admitted that historic abuse by clerics in several countries was ‘monstrous.’ 

Also read: ‘My pain and shame’: Pope apologises for Catholic church sex abuse

But he insisted the Church should not be judged by modern standards because attitudes towards abuse, which he said happens not just in the Church but in society generally, have changed dramatically over the years.

“In olden times, these things were covered up, they were even covered up in homes, when an uncle raped a niece, when a father raped his children,” he said.

“It was covered up because it was an enormous shame. That was the mentality in the last century.  

He cited the example of the death penalty, which the Vatican applied until the late 19th century: “Then the moral conscience grows,” he said.

Earlier in the conference, an Austrian journalist who tried to ask about the shocking abuse in Germany was shut down.

Pope Francis told him: “I will respond, but first questions about the trip. This is the rule. But, it will be the first question after the trip.”

But when questions about the tour were over, the pope avoided being quizzed by announcing: “I would like to tell you some things on some points of the trip that I have experienced with a special strength.”

The Pope said instances of abuse dropped in recent years because the Church took action against perpetrators.

Referring to a damning report last August by a US grand jury on sexual abuse of children by priests in Pennsylvania over a 70-year period, he noted that the incidents of abuse diminished toward the end of the years covered in the report.

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“In more recent times the number went down because the Church realised that it had to fight in a different way,” he said.

“Look at the proportions (in the Pennsylvania report) and you will see that when the Church started becoming aware of this, it spared no effort,” he said.  

He added: “Priests are supposed to take children to God, not to destroy them.’ If just one priest abuses a child, it’s monstrous.”

The Catholic Church has been rocked by a fresh wave of devastating claims of sexual abuse committed by clergy across the globe.

Scandals in Australia, Europe, and North and South America have involved widespread claims of abuse – and cover-ups – by clergymen and lay members with one Vatican archbishop describing it as the church’s ‘own 9/11’.  

But the pope declined to answer a question about a damning report released in Germany on Tuesday showing that almost 3,700 minors – mostly boys – were assaulted between 1946 and 2014.

The German Catholic Church apologised for the abuse, saying the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

But campaigners and victims have been left furious by ‘ridiculous’ payouts.

Matthias Katsch, who was sexually abused when he was 13, said he was outraged that the German Church – the richest in the world because it takes eight per cent of German Catholics’ incomes – was only paying each survivor an average of £2,600 as a ‘recognition fee’.

He said: “The Church paid me a recognition fee of 5,000 euros, he said. ‘They don’t call it compensation. And I don’t call it compensation either.”

“They call it a recognition fee? Well, thank you very much, but that’s not what I want. I want justice.”

Also read: Vatican cardinal slams pope Francis as an ‘Ice-cold liar’

Related: All Chile’s 34 bishops offer resignation to Pope over sex abuse

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