A former Irish president has blasted the “self-serving… little old men” running the Church, warning them “people are walking away” from Catholicism “in droves”.

– “Women in the Church, atrocious. On protections for children… very weak and lacking in credibility still”

“The truth of the matter is, people are walking away in droves. They are tired of these old men, trying to beat the drum of obedience, being obedient to teaching that is long past its sell-by date and needs to be revised, needs to be critiqued”, Mary McAleese, Irish president from 1997 to 2011, told BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour on Thursday.

“We belong to a Church that is wonderful at talking out to the world from its moral pulpit. Wonderful for example on climate change… Pope Francis on migrants. Excellent. On outreach to the poor. Excellent”, McAleese said.

She added, however, that the Catholic position on women is “atrocious”.

“Women in the Church, atrocious. On protections for children who are abused, very weak and lacking in credibility still”, McAleese denounced.

– Despite a doctorate in canon law, “I am ignored completely by the hierarchy”

Ex-President McAleese – who is presently the Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin, in addition to the number of other professorial and fellowship roles she holds in universities around the world – is a licenced civil lawyer who also possesses a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Describing herself to the BBC program as a person of faith but also as “a person with a thinking brain”, McAleese said she studied canon law in order to have “credibility” when criticising the Church, as she has long done for its treatment not only of women but also of LGBTIQ+ people.

However, despite her doctorate the former Irish president decried that she is still not taken seriously by the “small, self-serving hermetically-sealed group of men” in charge of the Catholic institution.

“I am ignored completely by the Church’s hierarchy. Utterly, absolutely ignored. But that’s okay because they’re only a tiny proportion of the Church. They’re desperately powerful, yes, and they make the rules, yes, but the Church is 1.2 billion people which is why I stay”, she explained.

McAleese revealed that another reason she remains a Catholic despite disagreeing with the positions of the hierarchy resides in the fact that the Church still retains considerable power as the biggest NGO globally with a presence, even, at the United Nations.

“No other faith system has that power and influence in the world”, she observed.

The ex-Irish president said the task she has set herself in terms of her advocacy for Catholic women and LGBTIQ+ believers is to work so that her “tiny little voice will sometime permeate upwards” and create change.

– “Large chunks” of Catholic teaching “are appalling”

McAleese later followed up her harsh words against Church leaders on Radio 4 Thursday with another interview on The View program on BBC Northern Ireland in which she announced that she would “use whatever time is left to me” to fight against traditional Catholic teachings on women and LGBTIQ+ people.

“What else I am going to do in retirement except make myself useful in that regard?”, McAleese, 69, asked.

The politician and academic said “large chunks” of the Church’s doctrine “are appalling”.

“Large chunks of it over history have been taught with great grandiosity and then have been found wanting, and they have managed to slink away quietly from them”, she deplored.

She also took aim once again at “the male bishops who regard themselves as the arbitrators of the Church’s teaching” and are spoiling the “deeply beautiful thing” that is human spirituality with their “exclusivity and elitism”.

Insisting that she isn’t a “hater of the Church”, McAleese also pointed the finger at the Church’s traditional teaching on Jews.

“I think … of [the Church’s] appalling history of anti-Semitism. It has resiled from anti-Semitism, as you would expect indeed after seeing where anti-Semitism leads after the Holocaust – God help us… Sooner or later they will resile from sexism and homophobia because science and human rights will interrupt the integrity of their narrative, it no longer has any integrity for me”, McAleese insisted.

She added that for her sexism and homophobia ” are issues of human rights”. “I have a voice and I am going to use it for that purpose” of denouncing misogynt and LGBTIQ+-phobia, she promised.

Novena’s full coverage of the Irish Church:

Irish nun pleads: “Most urgent” issue for Church “is to correct its gender imbalance”

Church “got to answer” for teaching on gays that “empowers the homophobic bully”, insists former Irish president

Former Irish president demands Vatican be held to account over abuse committed by ‘saint’ of the disabled Jean Vanier

Former Irish president decries “invisibility and powerlessness” of women in Church


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.