AN unholy row has engulfed a major Irish religious conference which has been criticised by conservative Catholics for booking a speaker who performed Masses for members of the gay community.
The Divine Mercy Conference, which attracts up to 5,000 people to its annual event in Dublin's RDS, is being boycotted by a US Catholic television network over its plans to invite Dominican preacher Fr Timothy Radcliffe as its keynote speaker.
The English-based cleric celebrated so-called "gay Masses" in Soho, London – ceremonies which are intended to be especially welcoming to homosexuals.
The row comes quick on the heels of the debate over Catholic attitudes to same-sex marriage, which was sparked after members of the conservative Catholic lobby group the Iona Institute were paid compensation by RTE following claims on a television show that they were homophobic.
Fr Radcliffe's involvement in the conference this weekend hasn't gone down well with the Alabama-based EWTN channel, which usually covers the event but will not do so this year.
One of its presenters, former MEP Kathy Sinnott, claimed "many Catholics in Ireland are concerned" that he had been invited because of his "stated views on human sexuality and in particular on homosexuality".
A boycott campaign has also been mounted by a conservative Catholic organisation, the little known Steering Committee for the National Consecration of Ireland. It did not respond to a request for comment.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, declined to comment on the row yesterday.
Conference organiser Don Devaney defended the use of Fr Radcliffe and described the campaign against him as "scurrilous and vitriolic".
While not in favour of same-sex unions, Fr Radcliffe has said he welcomes "the wave of support for same-sex marriage".
Some of the objections to Fr Radcliffe's presence at the conference stem from his celebration of "gay Masses" as part of an outreach initiative launched a number of years ago by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, with the backing of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. The Masses have now ended at the request of the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols.
In a statement Fr Radcliffe said he was "sorry that so many people seem alarmed" at his presence at the conference.
"I have presided occasionally at Masses which were intended to be especially welcoming to gay people." These Masses are part of the pastoral programme of the Archdiocese of Westminster, approved by Cardinal Murphy O'Connor, who consulted the then Cardinal Ratzinger and received his support.
In her television programme on EWTN, Ms Sinnott accused Fr Radcliffe of holding views "at sharp variance to Catholic teaching".
However, Fr Radcliffe has denied this, saying while he believed the love between gay people was "of infinite value", he was personally opposed to gay marriage.
The Iona Institute's David Quinn said it did not have any objection to Fr Radcliffe's views and did not want to get involved in the debate over his presence.