A former President of Ireland has described the Catholic Church as an "empire of misogyny."

Mary McAleese was speaking in Rome yesterday (March 7) ahead of Voices of Faith, an annual gathering which aims to promote female leadership within the Vatican.

"The Catholic Church is one of the last great bastions of misogyny," Mrs McAleese told reporters during a press conference. "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 they can look up to."

The Belfast-born politician will be the event's opening speaker, which symbolically coincides with International Women's Day.

She said more must be done to increase the number of women in leadership roles and has strongly opposed the Church's position on female priests.

"I've read everything written on the subject, all the stuff that was recommended to me by Cardinal Desmond Connell when I wrote and said to him 'tell me all the arguments in favour of excluding women' and when I read them they were so stupid I realised very quickly that it was codology dressed up as theology."

"I cannot be bothered arguing. Sooner or later the dead weight of its own stupidity will disintegrate this argument."

She also claimed that the Catholic hierarchy "has reduced Christ to this rather unattractive politician who is just misogynistic and homophobic and anti-abortion".

Catholic Church leaders, including Pope Francis, have declined to attend the annual conference, which is normally held within the grounds of the Vatican, after a prominent US cardinal opposed the inclusion of three pro-LGBT rights campaigners, including Ms McAleese herself. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, originally from Ireland, said it was "not appropriate"that the women attend.

Ms. McAleese, who served as the President of Ireland from 1997 until 2011, is a practicing Catholic and has supported rights for same sex-couples throughout her career.