BRITAIN'S most senior Roman Catholic cleric resigned today only hours after he rejected allegations that he had behaved in an "inappropriate" way with other priests.
"The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today, 25 February 2013," said a statement from Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who had been expected to take part in the conclave to choose the next pope, said in a statement.
O'Brien, who is known for outspoken views on homosexuality and is originally from Co Antrim, had been reported to the Vatican over allegations of inappropriate behaviour stretching back 30 years, according to the Observer newspaper.
The cardinal, the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, had rejected the claims.
O'Brien had been expected to resign in view of his 75th birthday on March 17.
The date was brought forward with immediate effect one day after allegations emerged in the Observer newspaper from three priests and a former priest.
They complained to the Vatican about behaviour towards them going back about 30 years, according to the report.
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."
Cardinal O'Brien did not attend Mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh yesterday following the allegations in the Observer.
The clergyman was due to celebrate eight years of Pope Benedict holding office.
The Cardinal, who was born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, has been the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since 1985.
Ordained as a priest in 1965, he 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."
An apostolic administrator will be appointed to govern the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh until a successor to Cardinal O'Brien is appointed.
The Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said Cardinal O'Brien's resignation was a "positive thing".
"He has been a very vocal opponent of lesbian and gay equality and we can only pray that whoever takes over his position will be a little bit more thoughtful in the way they choose to conduct themselves towards lesbian and gay people and lesbian and gay Catholics in particular," he said.
"He has hurt a lot of people and excluded a lot of people from God's love with what he has done."