Ireland’s former president Mary McAleese has strongly criticised the Catholic Church for its views on homosexuality and suggests Cardinal Keith O’Brien should share his life story in order to help gay people who have felt the need “to pretend to be heterosexual”.

She told the Royal Society of Edinburgh: “I would have thought Cardinal Keith O’Brien, in telling the story of his life – if he was willing to do that – could have been of great assistance to gay people, not just in the Church but elsewhere, who felt over many, many years constrained to pretend to be heterosexual while at the same time acting a different life.”

Mrs McAleese said that Cardinal O’Brien had hoped to divert attention from himself by raising his voice “in the most homophobic way”.

However this, she said, was a reflection of the Vatican’s attitude to gay people in general.

“Things written by Benedict, for example, were completely contradictory to modern science and to modern understanding, and to the understanding of most Catholics nowadays in relation to homosexuality”, she added: “I don’t like my Church’s attitude to gay people. I don’t like ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. If you are the so-called sinner, who likes to be called that? We also know that within the priesthood a very large number of priests are gay.”

“Nowadays, it is not something that is perceived as something that is intrinsically disordered. Homosexual conduct is not seen as evil.”

Cardinal O’Brien resigned as Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh last year after admitting to “inappropriate behaviour” with several priests.

In November 2012, the senior Catholic was named ‘Bigot of the Year’ by gay rights charity Stonewall due to his staunch opposition to marriage equality.

Previously he had stated that same-sex relationships were “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing” and compared equal marriage to slavery and child abuse.

It was also alleged Cardinal O’Brien had a long-standing physical relationship with one of the men whose complaints about his conduct sparked his resignation.

A Vatican inquiry concluded in April last year – and no further action against Cardinal O’Brien was taken.

It was announced in May that Cardinal O’Brien had left “for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance”.

Mrs McAleese, a Catholic, served as the eighth President of Ireland from 1997 to 2011. Since leaving office she has spent a significant amount of time in Rome studying canon law.

She announced her support for equal marriage in October 2012.

The month prior, the former president criticised the Catholic Church for its “isolated” views on homosexuality and expressed her concern at the high number of suicides among gay men in Ireland.

Ireland is due to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015.