Ireland’s former president Mary McAleese has been praised for calling on the Catholic Church to rethink its stance on homosexuality.

Speaking during a lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Mrs McAleese said the Church had been in denial over homosexuality for decades and that it was “not so much the elephant in the room but a herd of elephants”.

Her comments have been welcomed by the Irish Association of Catholic Priests. “Good on her,” Redemptorist Fr Tony Flannery told the Irish Independent, adding: “We very much welcome the comments of Mary McAleese in relation to the teachings of the Church on homosexuality.”

Fr Flannery said he previously got into trouble when he refused to condone the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.

“She was right in saying that Benedict’s comments on homosexuality as something ‘disordered’ were unhelpful,” Fr Flannery added.

“We would also agree that a great number of Catholic priests are in fact homosexual themselves and there should be more openness around the issue of sexuality in the Catholic Church.”

Kieran Rose, chair of Ireland’s Gay and Lesbian Equality Network also praised the former president. He said: “Mary McAleese continues to be a wonderful advocate for lesbian and gay people out of office just as she was as president. The comments by the former president will send a profoundly positive message to all lesbian and gay people.”

“Irish attitudes towards LGBT people have change fundamentally in recent times. This is reflected in recent polls showing significant majority support for equal status for lesbian and gay relationships by the State. Mrs McAleese’s continues to be a source of leadership to Irish people and their values”, Mr Rose added.

In her speech, Mrs McAleese also said that disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien had hoped to divert attention from himself by raising his voice “in the most homophobic way”.

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.

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.