CARDINAL Keith O'Brien has been urged to tell his life story to help gay people in all walks of life who have felt the need to pretend to be heterosexual.

The call came from former Irish President Mary McAleese, who said the Catholic 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".

Speaking during a lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Mrs McAleese said: "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, like so many closet homosexuals, Keith O'Brien 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.

She said: "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.

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

Mrs McAleese drew a ­comparison with the Church's attitude to Jews. It took almost two millennia formally to revise the "Christ-killer" slander which had been repeated down the decades.

She said: "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."

Mrs McAleese studied suicide among young Irish males, many of them gay Catholics who grew up being told their sexuality was "intrinsically disordered" and "evil".

When she took this research to the new papal nuncio in Dublin she was surprised by his response.

She said she was asked: "What do you want me to do? Do you want us to turn our back on tradition?" Her answer was: "Yes, if it's wrong."

The views of Mrs McAleese were expressed before recent events surrounding Father Matthew Despard, a priest who broke ranks and spoke publicly about an alleged culture of ­homosexual bullying in the Church.

This culminated on Sunday when parishioners at John Ogilvie Roman Catholic Church in High Blantyre were handed letters from Bishop Joseph Toal denouncing Father Despard, their priest until he was supended by the Church.

Father Despard was condemned by Bishop Toal for questioning his authority and instructions. While some parishioners accepted the criticism of Father Despard, many were highly critical of the whole idea of a pulpit denunciation and felt the issues raised should not be brushed under the carpet.

All of this controversy flowed from the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien after he admitted behaving inappropriately towards young priests in his charge.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said the intervention by Bishop Toal was intended to urge everyone to work together to heal past wounds. The church made no specific comment Mrs McAleese's intervention.