The Catholic Church in Britain has been left with no vote in the forthcoming conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI following the resignation of its most senior cleric amid allegations of "inappropriate" behaviour towards fellow priests.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, is to step down with immediate effect, it was announced, a day after the Observer newspaper reported that three priests and a former priest had complained about him to the Vatican over alleged "inappropriate" behaviour stretching back 30 years.
A statement issued by the cardinal added that he would not now attend the papal conclave, as he did not wish to be the centre of media attention and distract from the process of electing a new pope.
The 74-year-old cleric tendered his resignation to Pope Benedict in November, citing age and "indifferent health". He had been widely expected to step down next month when he turns 75.
His resignation was accepted by the pope on February 18, according to a statement from the Scottish Catholic Media Office. (SCMO)
An SCMO spokesman insisted that a number of appointments and resignations of bishops were being accepted in the last days of the Pope's time in office.
As Cardinal O'Brien's retirement was imminent on March 17 and the pope's resignation was also imminent - on Thursday - his resignation had been accepted, he said.
He added that Cardinal O'Brien contested the allegations against him. "The allegations are anonymous and non specific, he contests them and is taking legal advice," he said.
In a statement issued by the SCMO, Cardinal O'Brien said: "I have valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest.
"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."