Former President Mary McAleese is a decent and fiercely-intelligent woman who is hugely respected by the Irish people. She’s in for a disappointment, though, if she thinks the Catholic Church values her opinion any more than it does that of any other woman, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

They gave Cardinal Bernard Law a grand old send-off all the same last December. Granted, the turnout in St Peter’s Basilica was clearly sparser than anticipated, with ushers stacking away the chairs which had been set out for an expected larger crowd, but Law’s funeral Mass was presided over by senior Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and the coffin was blessed by Pope Francis himself.

No mention was made at Law’s funeral of the reason he had been forced to resign on December 13 2002, after 18 years as Archbishop of Boston. Law’s resignation came at the culmination of a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by Boston Globe reporters, in which they outlined how paedophile priests were moved – under Law’s watch – from parish to parish without notifying parishioners or authorities. This was dramatised in the superb 2015 film ‘Spotlight‘, a film I watched with a strange feeling of déjà vu, because – of course – we in Ireland had seen the Boston story before ever Boston saw it.

In the wake of Cardinal Law’s death, Boston Globe journalist Kevin Cullen wrote a devastating article entitled ‘Bernard Law should be remembered for what he was: an enabler of abuse‘. In it, Cullen remembers his friend Joe Crowley, a victim of the abuse Bernie Law facilitated, and a good man who did his best to live his life in dignity and kindness. Cullen calls Law “one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world”.

(Cardinal Sodano, who presided over Law’s funeral – at least until Pope Bono arrived – also has form when it comes to the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse scandals. Among other things, Sodano was a principal patron of the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ. Degollado’s own history of sexual abuse and misconduct was eventually acknowledged by his Order after a Vatican finding of guilt.)

The reason all of this is on my mind, of course, is former President Mary McAleese. Last Thursday, she spoke at the Why Women Matter conference in Rome, describing the Catholic Church as an “empire of misogyny”. The conference had to be moved from the Holy See, so that President McAleese and another speaker, also barred by the Vatican, could speak. McAleese was barred because of her LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex) rights advocacy.

I like and respect Mary McAleese. I think she was a fine president, and I got to see her interact with the children of Fermoy Rowing Club twice, back when I was club secretary and got the brainwave after a couple of pints in The Grand to invite her to Fermoy for the Rowing Club’s 125th Anniversary in 2009. President McAleese apologised, saying she couldn’t make the occasion, but invited us to come to the Áras instead, and then agreed to call down for a visit at a later date. Apart from her unmistakeable intelligence, what really struck me about her was the low key, no fuss, no nonsense kindness she showed the kids. She might well have been the smartest person in the room – I’m pretty sure she was – but she went out of her way to be the nicest person too.

Writing in the Irish Times this week, Father Tony Flannery said of the Catholic Church’s misogyny, “Historically, there is no question. Misogyny was rampant in the church for many centuries. The early fathers engaged in theological debates wondering whether women had souls. Even as far down as the 12th century, Thomas Aquinas described women as ‘mis-shapen men’, and clearly saw them as inferior beings.”

On the question of whether the Catholic Church is guilty of misogyny in the present day, as Mary McAleese claims, Flannery noted “the church decrees only men can be ordained to the priesthood. It also retains, and shows no sign of changing, a system where all positions of authority and influence can only be filled by people who are ordained. This is clear, structural discrimination. Put whatever name you wish on it, it is wrong, unjust and unsustainable in the modern world.”

On Monday, RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live’s Amárach Research poll posed the question: “Former President Mary McAleese called the Catholic Church ‘an empire of misogyny’. Do you agree with her?”

A whopping 78% agreed that the Catholic Church, with its 600 million members worldwide, is indeed an empire of misogyny. Ironically, that’s pretty much the same percentage that voluntarily self-identified as Catholic in the 2016 census.

On Monday, the former president became upset as she revealed to RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke that her youngest brother had been ‘seriously, physically, sadistically abused’ by the paedophile priest Father Malachy Finnegan through all the years he attended St Colman’s College, Newry.

Finnegan’s career covered four decades, and his victims must number in the hundreds. The very first reports against Finnegan date back to the 1970s, but a most serious allegation of sexual abuse was made against him in 1994, when Finnegan had left St Colman’s and was serving as parish priest in Hilltown, Clonduff. The then Bishop of Dromore Francis Gerard Brooks, sent Finnegan secretly to Our Lady of Victory in Stroud in the UK, a centre specialising in the treatment of paedophile priests. Brooks failed to alert civil authorities.

This was weeks after the scandal of Father Brendan Smyth’s botched extradition had brought down Albert Reynolds’ government, at a time when the entire country was talking about clerical child abuse. Six months later, his therapy apparently complete, Finnegan was allowed return unmonitored to the community. Within two days Finnegan had raped a 10-year-old boy, Seán Faloon.

One of the best lines in the movie ‘Spotlight’ is “The Catholic Church thinks in centuries”.

Bernard Law’s lavish Vatican funeral, with Special Guest Star – and hasn’t he a grand smile in fairness to him –  the so-called ‘reformer’ Pope Francis, suggests to me that not only has the Catholic Church learned nothing at all from all of its child abuse scandals, the Catholic Church actually doesn’t want to learn anything.

Like a paedophile refusing to accept treatment because he doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with him, or with what he does, the Catholic Church will never change. Three successive popes have said no woman will ever be ordained to the priesthood. With a lot of respect to her, I think President McAleese is wasting her breath, and so too is anyone else who thinks it’s their church and not the hierarchy’s.

“What happens to men when they get into that toxic atmosphere of the Vatican?” asked Father Tony Flannery yesterday.

The Catholic Church is a misogynistic, homophobic organisation. It can’t change, it won’t change and it doesn’t want to change. If you’re happy to stay a part of that, good luck to you. Go with God.