ROME — Pope Francis asked forgiveness Monday for all Christians who buy sex from women, saying men who frequent prostitutes are criminals with a "sick mentality" who think that women exist to be exploited.
"This isn't making love. This is torturing a woman. Let's not confuse the terms," Francis insisted.
The pope made the comments during an intimate, four-hour-long listening session with 300 young people who were invited by the Vatican to Rome this week to help church leaders learn what kids these days think about the Catholic Church.
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It's a preparatory meeting for a big synod of bishops in October on helping young people find their vocations in life. Francis has insisted that young adults — Catholic and not — be integral in the process informing the otherwise all-male, celibate and rather old church hierarchy about the future of the church.
"Young people must be taken seriously," he said.
He got an earful when he opened the meeting by urging the young people to speak with courage, without shame or "anesthesia" to dull the truth.
Nicholas Lopez, a college campus minister from Texas, told Francis that young people today face racism, poverty and gang violence, as well as "unjust immigration laws that threaten to split children from families."
Angela Markas from Australia told Francis young people want debate in the church about sexuality, same-sex attraction and the role of women.
And Blessing Okoedion, from Nigeria, asked Francis how the church could allow Catholics to be clients for the many Nigerian women in Italy like her, who are forced to be sex slaves by the traffickers who got them here.
"I ask myself, and I ask you: Is the male chauvinistic church able to truthfully ask itself about this high demand by clients?" she asked.
Francis, who has made the fight against human trafficking and modern-day sex slaves a priority of his pontificate, urged young people to take up the fight against trafficking and forced prostitution.
"This is one of the battles that I ask you young people to do, for the dignity of women," he said. He said forced prostitution was born of a "sick mentality" that no form of feminism has managed to rid from society, one that thinks that "women are to be exploited."
Speaking to Okoedion, who was forced into prostitution but escaped, Francis concluded: "I want to take advantage of this moment, because you talked about baptized and Christians, to ask your forgiveness, from society and all the Catholics who do this criminal act."