The Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland said this week it has real concerns about the future of the Church. The group, which has 800 priests as members, has been outspoken on the need for change in the church in Ireland.

'At the moment the average age of priests in Ireland is 64,' Father Brendan Hoban, one of the senior clerics in the Association, told the Irish Examiner, adding that the numbers were dwindling and would continue to. 'Without priests there is no Eucharistic, without the Eucharist there is no Church,' he added.

'We are very, very worried about it - and we need to look at priesthood - what priesthood is supposed to do and how we can have priesthood for a new and different world.'

According to the Irish Examiner, over 1,000 people attended the 'Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church' conference in Dublin yesterday. The title of the conference, say organizers, underlined their aim, after two decades of abuse scandals, to find a new way forward for the Church in Ireland.

But the Association of Catholic Priests does not enjoy strong support from Rome. In fact, many of its members have faced strong criticism by the Vatican recently for publicly expressing views that contradict Church teachings.

Nonetheless, they say there is a widespread belief that the crisis in the Irish Church is deepening, a fact underlined by the recent BBC investigation which revealed that for years, Cardinal Sean Brady was aware of the abuses perpetrated by serial pedophile Father Brendan Smyth and failed to act, and so the conference was created to discuss these issues and the future direction of the Church, the Association said.

Lay Catholic Joe Mulvanney told how in his own parish of Dundrum in Dublin, which has 4,000 people “on the rolls” just 800 attend Mass every Sunday.

“The biggest number we have has walked away,” he said. As soon as the “wonderful” Vatican II was over “and all its 16 documents . . . ” it was “taken back from us”, he told the Irish Times.

One of the conference attendees was clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins, who told the Examiner that the recent revelations about Cardinal Brady's inaction over Father Smyth in the 1970s means that he cannot remain in his current position.

'That is the pity of the whole situation,' she said. 'That that man, who is the leader of our church, cannot see that there is anything morally wrong with his inaction in 1975. Whatever about how he acted or didn't act in 1975, I think his refusal at this point to even see or understand the morality of the whole issue is why he really should not be the head of our church.'