Former president Mary McAleese has told a conference in Rome that it is time to bring down the walls of misogyny in the Catholic Church.

She said that it has become a "primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny", and "a male bastion of patronising platitudes to which Pope Francis has added his own quota."

She told the 'Voices of Faith' conference that the solution is readily available. "It is equality," she declared.

Mrs McAleese challenged Pope Francis, "a reforming pope", to commit to "real, practical action on behalf of women." 

"Start the process", she said, "Get it going. Put the fuel in the engine! Hit the button!"

"The time for change is now."

She described as "ludicrous" antiquated church systems, which render women "invisible and voiceless" where they are "expected to do all the hard work that keeps the church going."

The annual 'Voices of Faith' conference is traditionally held in the Vatican itself.

However, it moved to another location in Rome outside the Vatican walls this year after a conservative US cardinal requested that three gay rights campaigners, including Mrs McAleese, be excluded from the programme.

Irish-born US cardinal Kevin Farrell, a senior Vatican official, said it was "not appropriate" for the three to be taking part in the conference.

Mrs McAleese, who has been a campaigner for same-sex rights for 40 years, said a church hierarchy that is "homophobic and anti-abortion is not the church of the future."

She wrote to Pope Francis last month after the Vatican declined to approve her and the two other speakers to take part in the conference.

Mrs McAleese said that she hoped her remarks were heard over "a nearby wall."

She said those attending the conference are there to shout and to bring down "our church's wall of misogyny."

She said the church has "almost no culture of self critiquing. It has a hostility to internal criticism [which] fosters a blinkered servility which borders on institutional idolatry."

"It has kept Christ out and kept bigotry in," she said.

Mrs McAleese said it is time to hold the church to account for "this egregious abuse of institutional power.

"We are left to talk among ourselves. No church leader bothers to turn up.

"The tidal wave is quickly approaching the Vatican walls."

Earlier, her son said he thinks people will find it hard to stomach that she was initially "silenced and banned" from speaking at the conference.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Justin McAleese said his mother is committed to the Catholic Church, and she is a product of the Catholic education system.

"They (nuns) gave her the tools to become the President of Ireland and a canon lawyer. And to think today she is in Rome not speaking in the Vatican City on a conference about women in the church on International Women's Day. I think of the irony there. I don't think it's lost on people."

He said he is not surprised by the support for his mother after her exclusion from the conference.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Catholic World Meeting of Families has said it is too early to say where Pope Francis might visit if he comes to Ireland in August, apart from Dublin.

She was responding to a call from Mrs McAleese for the Pontiff to visit Newry, Co Down in the wake of the resignation of the local bishop, John McAreavey.

The Bishop of Dromore tendered his resignation following protests from victims of child sexual abuser Fr Malachy Finnegan, a former president of St Colman's Grammar School in Newry.

The victims criticised Bishop McAreavey for celebrating Finnegan's funeral Mass in 2002, despite knowing that he had abused children.

They also criticised his decision to concelebrate a public mass with the paedophile priest in 2000, despite Finnegan's banishment by the church to a life of private ministry.

The spokeswoman emphasised that Pope Francis has not officially confirmed that he will be travelling to Ireland for the WMF, which is scheduled to take place in Dublin from 21 to 26 August.