Former Irish president Mary McAleese reveals her fights with Catholic Church and how Pope refused to shake hand

Mary McAleese

The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, has spoken about how she was treated with hostility by some leading figures in the Catholic Church and how Pope John Paul II refused to shake her hand when she met him.

Speaking at the Irish American Partnership in Boston, she described how the Pope instead of greeting her, turned to her husband and said: “Would you not prefer to be the president of Ireland instead of your wife?”

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McAleese refused to be phased by the incident and responded: “You would never have done that to a male president. I’m the elected president of Ireland whether you like it or not.”

Mary McAleese

She also clashed with the American Cardinal Bernard Law. She said he tried to intimidate her by saying: “I’m sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as president.”

The reason for the animosity was because during McAleese’s presidency, she challenged the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland and supported the campaign for women priests. She also played a major part in exposing attempts to cover up child abuse.

She says that when she met Cardinal Law, he took her to the lawyer and theologian Mary Ann Glendon who to tried to explain to her why only men should have positions of power in the church.

McAleese told the Independent newspaper that she considered Law’s behaviour to be completely inappropriate. “Cardinal Law lambasted me and a considerable number of the official delegation after ushering us into a room where a well-known American conservative Catholic, Mary Ann Glendon, was waiting to lecture me on my views on women priests.

“We were initially gobsmacked by this arrogant man. I then told the cardinal that I was the President of Ireland and not just of Catholic Ireland. I felt he had insulted Ireland and the Irish people.”

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She later discovered that Irish bishops had briefed Cardinal Law about her views on women priests and her willingness to challenge church authority.

McAleese said the Irish Cardinal, Cahal Daly, later apologised to her and told her an official invitation from the church for Cardinal Law to visit Ireland had been rescinded.

Many years later, on International Women’s Day in 2018, McAleese accused the Catholic Church of being the world’s worst perpetrators of misogyny and sexism.

She said: “This regrettable situation arises because the Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny.

“Its leadership has never sought a cure for that virus although the cure is freely available. Its name is equality.”

“John Paul II has written of the ‘mystery of women’. Talk to us as equals and we will not be a mystery.”

Cardinal Law later had to leave his position in disgrace for his part in covering up child abuse.

Mrs McAleese is currently studying canon law in Rome and has just published a new book on the subject, ‘Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law’.

Did you know?

Female Irish warrior Grainne Ni Mhaile, or Grace O’Malley is one of the most colourful characters in Irish history. Born around 1530, she was a Pirate Queen and became a constant thorn in the side of British Queen Elizabeth I. Find out more.