In a significant development Pope Francis has said that gay people should not be judged or marginalised and should be integrated into society.

Speaking to reporters on Monday during a plane journey back to the Vatican following his trip to Brazil, the global Catholic leader said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

However, he also referred to the Catholic Church’s universal Catechism, which states that while being gay is not sinful, homosexual acts are.

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they should not be marginalised because of this, but that they must be integrated into society,” he said.

Pope Francis has often used emotive language in order to state his opposition towards equality – and today’s comments are striking.

Three years ago as cardinal he warned that efforts to legalise equal marriage in Argentina would “confuse and deceive the children of God.”

In June, he warned the French against following “fashionable ideas” in relation to the country’s equal marriage law. 

Onboard his flight back to Rome, the 76-year-old was also quizzed by journalists about allegations of indiscretion regarding the Prelate of the Vatican bank, Monsignor Battista Ricca.

Monsignor Ricca is facing claims of inappropriate sexual behaviour and reportedly offered to resign.

Pope Francis said he had investigated the claims and found nothing to back up the allegations.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, he said: “I did what canon law requires, which is to conduct a preliminary investigation. We didn’t find anything to confirm the things he was accused of, there was nothing … I’d like to add that many times we seem to seek out the sins of somebody’s youth and publish them. We’re not talking about crimes, which are something else.

“The abuse of minors, for instance, is a crime. But one can sin and then convert, and the Lord both forgives and forgets. We don’t have the right to refuse to forget … it’s dangerous. The theology of sin is important. St Peter committed one of the greatest sins, denying Christ, and yet they made him pope! Think about that.”

Turning to the issue of women priests, he said the Church had spoken and had said “no”, but the role of women should not be restricted.

“We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity, there must be more,” he said.

Pope Francis joked about claims of a “gay lobby” operating at the heart of the Vatican by saying: “There’s a lot of talk about the gay lobby, but I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card!”

“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalised. The tendency [of homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

“The problem is not having this orientation,” he said. “We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem.”

In June, a Latin American Catholic Church group apologised for the “confusion” caused by the publication of members’ accounts of a meeting with Pope Francis where he was quoted as referring to a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican’s secretive administration, the Curia.

The Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious (CLAR) stressed the Pope’s comments had not been recorded but were what CLAR members remembered of his answers to their questions.

Pope Francis was asked about the panel of cardinals he has set up to help him reform the Curia, the Catholic Church’s central administrative body.

He was quoted as replying: “…it is difficult. In the Curia, there are also holy people, really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true… The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there… We need to see what we can do…”