THE election of the next Pope has been thrown into crisis by the resignation of Britain's most senior Catholic clergyman over allegations of "inappropriate" behaviour with priests.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the church in Scotland, said he was not only standing down as Archbishop of St Andrew's and Edinburgh but would not now take part in the forthcoming conclave to elect Benedict XVI's successor.
The cardinal, a fierce opponent of gay marriage, said he did not want to become a distraction during the process of choosing a new leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
But the decision of Cardinal O'Brien – who would have been the only Briton with a vote in the conclave – to stay away because of a personal scandal is thought to be without any historical precedent.
It immediately reignited pressure on a string of other cardinals from the US, Ireland and Belgium to stand aside from the vote amid allegations of covering up child abuse.
Vatican-watchers said it laid bare a growing sense of crisis at the top of the Catholic Church, which has been beset with intrigue and media speculation in the last week.
There were predictions that the allegations, if true, would cause devastation to the church, shattering its credibility on moral issues and demoralising the faithful.
The cardinal has said he would be "contesting" the allegations, published in 'The Observer' newspaperat the weekend, and was consulting lawyers.
But, in a statement, the normally plain-spoken cleric pointedly made no acknowledgement of the claims. "For any good I have been able to do, I thank God," he said. "For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended."
Four men – three priests and one former priest – have accused the cardinal of "inappropriate" behaviour dating back as far as 1980 before he became archbishop.
Their claims are particularly damaging given his vehement denunciations of homosexuality, describing gay marriage as a "grotesque subversion".
The cardinal was due to retire and had already tendered his resignation to the Pope citing "indifferent health" but no date had been set. But yesterday, less than 24 hours after it emerged that the Pope was personally overseeing the investigation, he confirmed to the cardinal that it would now have immediate effect.
The cardinal said: "The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today."
The cardinal thanked the Pope for his "kindness and courtesy" in the past.
He added: "I also ask God's blessing on my brother cardinals who will soon gather in Rome to elect his successor. I will not join them for this conclave in person."
Prof Tom Devine, one of the leading authorities on Scottish history, said: "This is probably the gravest single public crisis to hit the Catholic Church in Scotland since the Reformation and its effects in the short term are incalculable.
"Many of the faithful in Scotland will be stunned by the seismic turn of events and left demoralised."
Officials pointedly declined to acknowledge his decision to step aside from the conclave while support groups for victims of paedophile priests renewed calls for others – including the retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Francis Rigali, the Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels and Ireland's Sean Brady – to stand aside as well. (© Daily Telegraph, London)