By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Roman Catholic women led by former Irish president Mary McAleese demanded a greater decision-making role for women in the Church on Thursday, urging Pope Francis to tear down its "walls of misogyny".
McAleese was the key speaker at a symposium of Catholic women called "Why Women Matter", attended by hundreds of people and followed by many others around the world via web-streaming.
The Women's Day event was held at the headquarters of the Jesuit religious order after the Vatican withdrew permission for it to be held inside its walls when organizers added controversial speakers without its permission.
McAleese, who supports gay marriage and the ordination of women as priests, joked about the change of venue to a location just a block away from the Vatican walls, saying: "I hope all their hearing aids are turned on today".
She said the Church's ban on a female priesthood had "locked women out of any significant role in the Church’s leadership, doctrinal development and authority structure".
The Church teaches that women cannot be ordained priests because Jesus chose only men as his apostles. Those calling for women priests say he was only following the norms of his time.
"We are here to shout, to bring down our Church's walls of misogyny," she said, adding that the Church's position on keeping women in a subordinate role to men had "kept Christ out and bigotry in".
"How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants things this way, who wants a Church where women are invisible and voiceless in Church leadership?" she said in her address. McAleese was Irish president between 1997 and 2011.
Many women, she said, "experience the Church as a male bastion of patronizing platitudes, to which Pope Francis has added his quota".
The pope has promised to put more women in senior positions in the Vatican but critics say he is moving too slowly.
Other women speakers included Zuzanna Radzik, a Catholic theologian from Poland, who described the struggle to make priests and bishops in her homeland take her seriously as an intellectual on a par with men.
Many in the audience were nuns, who cheered on the speakers who demanded more rights for women in the Church.
Last week, a Vatican magazine denounced widespread exploitation of nuns for cheap or free labor in the Roman Catholic Church, saying the male hierarchy should stop treating them like lowly servants.
The article in the monthly "Women, Church, World", remarkable for an official Vatican publication, described the drudgery of nuns who cook, clean and wait on tables for cardinals, bishops and priests.
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)