FORMER Irish president Mary McAleese has denounced the Catholic Church as "an empire of misogyny", ahead of a conference calling for women to be included in Church decision-making.
Speaking to reporters in Rome, the 66-year-old said: "The Catholic Church is one of the last great bastions of misogyny. It's an empire of misogyny.
"There are so few leadership roles currently available to women. Women do not have strong role models in the Church that they can look up to."
McAleese, who was president between 1997 and 2011, will speak today at the annual 'Voices of Faith' conference on Catholic women’s rights in Rome for International Women’s Day.
Chantal Goetz from Germany, one of the organisers, said: "It's urgent to include women in the Church.
"We feel we have reached a crisis point. Young people leave the Church in alarming numbers. We watch the exodus of talented, educated young women."
The annual conference is traditionally held in the Vatican, but is moving to a different location in Rome after a conservative US cardinal demanded that three gay rights activists including McAleese be excluded from the event.
Irish-born US cardinal Kevin Farrell, a senior official at the Vatican, said it was “not appropriate” for the trio to take part in the conference.
McAleese, who has a gay son and has campaigned for same-sex rights for some four decades, added that the Catholic Church's hierarchy is “homophobic and anti-abortion [and] is not the Church of the future."