Madrid: A Chilean whistleblower who suffered clerical sexual abuse has said that Pope Francis told him in a private conversation that God had made him gay and loved him that way.
The Vatican declined to comment on the report but, if confirmed, it would be a striking statement of tolerance towards homosexuality, which the Church has condemned as an immoral disorder if it is actively practised.
In interviews with Spanish newspaper El Pais as well as the New York Times and the Associated Press, abuse victim Juan Carlos Cruz said that Pope Francis had told him during a meeting this month: "The fact that you are gay does not matter".
Cruz said he told the Pope how Chile's bishops used his sexual orientation as a weapon to try to discredit him, and of the pain the personal attacks had caused him.
"God made you this way and loves you this way, and it doesn't matter to me," Cruz said Pope Francis told him. "The Pope loves you this way, you must be happy the way you are."
Cruz was one of three Chilean victims who were invited by the Pope to Rome this month in the wake of a scandal in Chile over priestly sexual abuse and efforts by the Church hierarchy there to hush it up. He was the main whistleblower in the cover-up scandal.
After attending a crisis meeting with Francis about the cover-up last week, all of Chile's bishops offered to resign.
Since his election in 2013, the Pope has dramatically shifted the language the Church has used about homosexuality, which was once seen as a taboo subject.
"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" he said on his first overseas trip in 2013.
In 2016, he said had ministered to people with unfulfilled homosexual tendencies as well as homosexuals who were not able to remain chaste, as the Church asks them to. He insisted they are children of God, loved by God and deserving of accompaniment by the church.
"When a person arrives before Jesus, Jesus certainly will not say: 'Go away because you are homosexual'," he said.
The latest reported comments have been embraced by the LGBT community as another sign of Francis' desire to make gay people feel welcomed and loved in the Catholic Church.
Some commentators downplayed the significance of the comments to Cruz, saying they were merely in line with Francis' pastoral-minded attitude and not in any way a challenge to current doctrine.
Church teaching says gays should be respected, loved and not discriminated against, but considers homosexual activity "intrinsically disordered".
"What the pope was saying is, 'God loves you and made you just as you are, and therefore you should accept yourself as you are while struggling to live according to the Gospel,"' said the Reverend Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University.
Whether or not the pope intended to break ground, there was a time when the Catholic Church taught that sexual orientation was not something people choose.
The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the dense summary of Catholic teaching published by St. John Paul II in 1992, said gay individuals "do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial".
The updated edition, which is the only edition available online and on the Vatican website, removed the reference. The revised edition says: "This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial".
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for equality for LGBT Catholics, said the pope's comments were "tremendous" and would do a lot of good.
"It would do a lot better if he would make these statements publicly, because LGBT people need to hear that message from religious leaders, from Catholic leaders," he said.
Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict, wrote in 2005 that homosexuality was "a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil".