News comes just a day after the claims by three priests and a former priest first surfaced
The Catholic Church in Britain was in turmoil today following the resignation of its most senior cleric, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, amid allegations of "inappropriate" conduct.
The 74-year-old tendered his resignation as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in November to Pope Benedict XVI, but said in a statement today: "The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today."
He added that he would not be attending the conclave of cardinals due to choose a successor to Pope Benedict next month in Rome, leaving Britain's Roman Catholics with no vote in the election.
"I have valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest," Cardinal O'Brien said in a statement.
"Looking back over my years of ministry, for any good I have been able to do, I thank God.
"For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended."
The resignation follows allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards priests dating from the 1980s.
Cardinal O'Brien should have been travelling to the Vatican this week to help choose the next Pope, and yesterday he missed celebrating Sunday Mass in St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh, which marked the end of Pope Benedict's eight years in office.
O'Brien said he tendered his resignation some time ago, but added: "The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today."
Yesterday it was announced that the Vatican is to investigate the allegations.
A spokesman for the Vatican said yesterday: “the Pope is informed about the problem and the question is now in his hands.”
The complaints against the cardinal, which were first reported in The Observer, are thought to relate to alleged inappropriate approach to him in 1980 when he was a seminarian at St Andrew’s College, Drygrange.
The complainant said he resigned as a priest when Cardinal O’Brien was made a bishop, because he feared the cardinal “would always have power
Three other complaints, all made by serving priests, allege inappropriate contact and “unwanted behaviour” – in one instance following alleged late-night drinking.
Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Scottish Catholic Church, said: “Cardinal O’Brien contests these claims and is taking legal advice.”
The cardinal, who was born in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, has been the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since 1985, missed Sunday Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh today, citing legal advice.
His auxiliary, Bishop Stephen Robson made a statement yesterday, saying that the Church “cannot not be saddened” by the news.
“The cardinal has sought legal advice and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time,” he said. “As always in times of need such as this we cannot not be saddened by the events of the last 24 hours.”
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former Archbishop of Westminster, yesterday told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme yesterday that he was “very sad” to hear the allegations.
He said that it would be for Cardinal O’Brien himself to decide whether or not to go to Rome to attend the conclave.
“These allegations have not been proved in any way so I think he will have to decide whether he goes or not,” he said. He added that the Catholic Church had entered an age of “transparency” and that all abuse allegations are now “examined clearly and honestly and appropriate action is taken”.
Cardinal O'Brien had been expected to resign in view of his 75th birthday on March 17.
The date was brought forward with immediate effect.
Cardinal O'Brien said: "I thank Pope Benedict XVI for his kindness and courtesy to me and, on my own behalf and on behalf of the people of Scotland, I wish him a long and happy retirement. I also ask God's blessing on my brother Cardinals who will soon gather in Rome to elect his successor."
While he will not be joining them, he added: "I will pray with them and for them that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will make the correct choice for the future good of the Church.
"May God who has blessed me so often in my ministry continue to bless and help me in the years which remain for me on Earth and may he shower his blessings on all the peoples of Scotland, especially those I was privileged to serve in a special way in the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh."
Ordained as a priest in 1965, O'Brien was proclaimed a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in October 2003.
He has been an outspoken opponent of plans to legalise same-sex marriage and several days ago called for the Catholic Church to end its celibacy rule for the priesthood.
He said that many priests struggle to cope with celibacy and should be allowed to marry if they wish.
The Cardinal was the only British Roman Catholic cleric able to vote in the upcoming conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI following his earlier decision to resign.
The resignation was accepted on February 18 but only announced today, according to the statement from the Scottish Catholic Church.
Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, said: "I hear the news of Cardinal O'Brien's resignation with the greatest sadness.
"In all of my dealings with the Cardinal, he has been a considerate and thoughtful leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, stalwart in his faith but constructive in his approach.
"The hugely successful visit of Pope Benedict in 2010 was a highlight of his Cardinalship and symbolised the key role of the Catholic Church in Scottish society.
"It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation.
"None of us know the outcome of the investigation into the claims made against him but I have found him to be a good man for his church and country."