An Augustinian priest has delivered a stinging rebuke to ‘right-wing Catholics’ and ‘career-orientated Catholics’ who are trying to silence those clerics calling for change within the church.

Fr Iggy O’Donovan made the remarks in his final homily at St Augustines in Drogheda before he takes an enforced sabbatical.

He also spoke out in favour of the controversial Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery, subject of a silencing bid by the Vatican for his outspoken views on church reform in the wake of clerical sex scandals.

In an unprecedented move the Mayor of Drogheda Richard Culhane spoke at the mass and asked for fair treatment for Father O’Donovan who he described as a hugely popular figure.

Fr O’Donovan said: “I cannot leave here today without making some reference to a distinguished colleague of mine in the priesthood.

“I speak of Fr Tony Flannery. If I had not been made aware first hand of the details of this case I could not have given it credence.

“Even hardened veterans are shaken by the murkiness of the devious world of ecclesiastical politics. How has it come to this, that a great and good priest like Tony, who has dedicated his life to the preaching of the Gospel, is persecuted with a zeal that is as pathological as the paranoia that feeds it?

“How has it come to this, that intolerant and extreme right wingers, encouraged apparently by certain authorities and career-orientated priests, can meet in solemn conclave to determine who is guilty of what these people label heresy.”

Amid speculation, reported by the Irish Times, that he is not leaving Drogheda of his own freewill, Fr O’Donovan asked many questions of the Church in his final homily before undertaking the sabbatical offered by his superiors.

 He added: “How has it come to this that sincere thinking Catholics are walking away from our Church believing that the battle for sane Catholicism is lost.”

In a recent interview with the Irish Times he had acknowledged that controversies over his more liberal views “have taken their toll” and had been “debilitating”.

His con-celebration of the 2006 Easter Sunday Mass with Church of Ireland rector of Drogheda Rev Michael Graham had also attracted controversy.

He said: “I miscalculated the consequences for all involved and the genuine hurt it caused.

“I still believe and am strongly of the conviction that Catholicism is compatible with modern culture. I deeply welcome the arrival of Pope Francis. So we dream on.

“I cling to my foolish dream when, to paraphrase the words of the late Fr George Tyrell, himself a victim of oppression , ‘when the Catholic people represented by their bishops and their Pope will assemble not to decide and impose points of theology, ethics and politics under the threat of excommunication, but to proclaim the gospel of God’s Kingdom upon earth as it was proclaimed by Jesus Christ; to preach unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things’.”