"The Catholic Church is one of the last great bastions of misogyny," McAleese told reporters prior to her talk. "It's an empire of misogyny."
She also called for more women in leadership roles within the church.
"There are so few leadership roles currently available to women. Women do not have strong role models in the Church they can look up to," said McAleese, who served as President of Ireland from 1997 to 2011.
For the first time in its five-year history, the conference — held on International Women's Day — took place at the headquarters of the Jesuit religious order instead of at the Vatican because church authorities objected to a number of speakers including McAleese, who has long supported LGBT rights and the ordination of women as priests. This only lends credence to McAleese’s claims.
"How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants things this way, who wants a Church where women are invisible and voiceless in Church leadership?" McAleese said during her address, adding that many women "experience the Church as a male bastion of patronizing platitudes, to which Pope Francis has added his quota."
"Start the process. Get it going. Put the fuel in the engine. Hit the button." McAleese challenged Pope Francis to commit to "real, practical action on behalf of women.”
Pope Francisdid not attend the Why Women Matter conference nor did he celebrate mass for those attending. While he has said that he supports greater inclusion of women in Vatican jobs, and has appointed women to key positions within the Vatican's family office, he does not want women priests.
U.S. cardinal Kevin Farrell, a senior Vatican official who is reportedly responsible for attempting to block McAleese's inclusion in the conference, said it was "not appropriate" for McAleese and a number of other speakers, including Ugandan lesbian Catholic activist Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, to be taking part in the conference.
Is public opinion swaying in a different direction, however? The Tablet, one of the world's leading Catholic publications, called for change within the church in a recently published editorial. Amarách Research for Claire Byrne Live conducted a poll last week, finding that 78% of people agree with McAleese.
"The time is now for change in the Catholic Church,” McAleese remarked, and it seems that there are some within the church — like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin — who agree.
"[McAleese's] challenge to the internal culture of the Church today was brutally stark," saidMartin. "Some may find it unpleasant or unwelcome. I must accept the challenge with the humility of one who recognizes her alienation."