Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has defended Catholic adoption agencies that discriminate against same-sex couples.

The former head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales said the Equality Act had “unnecessarily” forced many of the agencies to close in recent years.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor wrote: “Because of our conviction that children are better placed in a home with a man and a woman, a father and mother, the agencies were unable to offer a service to same-sex couples.

“It would in fact have been a sensible and proportionate accommodation, recognising that religious organisations have a distinct identity and ethos that very often brings a valuable contribution to the wider common good of society.”

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also spoke of how he unsuccessfully urged the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to provide an opt-out in the Equality Act, allowing for the agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples.

“In spite of the fact that I, as Archbishop of Westminster then, appealed to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet for an exemption from this law, it was not forthcoming and the result has been a sad loss for the Church and society.”

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor added: “How extraordinary that a law, in the name of tolerance, should become so intolerant to a charity that aims only to do good and foster the most vulnerable children.”

He concluded: “We do indeed need in our pluralist society to strike a much fairer balance which recognises the importance of religion and belief and allows a more open and mature accommodation of differences while ensuring that the law protects everyone equally and prevents harm.”

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also expressed support for The Telegraph’s editorial praising Baroness Hale, the UK’s most senior female judge.

She suggested last week that Christians who oppose serving gay couples need to have more “religious freedom”.

Baroness Hale was one of the five Supreme Court justices to reject the appeal of Christian B&B owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who lost a long-running court dispute after refusing to serve gay couple Martin Hall and Steven Preddy.

In a speech she said “the pendulum has swung too far one way”.