LONDON (AFP) - Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric resigned with immediate effect as head of the Catholic Church in Scotland on Monday in the wake of claims that he made sexual advances towards priests.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien -- who steps down as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh -- denies the allegations, which date back to the 1980s, but he apologised to anyone offended by "failures" during his ministry.
The 74-year-old had been due to be the only British cardinal to vote on a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI following the pontiff's shock resignation on February 11.
But O'Brien confirmed in his resignation statement that he will not take part in the election conclave, which has been overshadowed by controversies surrounding O'Brien and other cardinals caught up in sex scandals.
"I will not join them for this conclave in person," O'Brien said. "I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me -- but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor."
He added: "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."
O'Brien had been due to resign on his 75th birthday next month but said the pope had "now decided that my resignation will take effect today".
The allegations include claims that one priest received unwanted attention from O'Brien after a late-night drinking session, Britain's Observer newspaper reported on Sunday.
Another priest reportedly claims that O'Brien used night prayers as cover for inappropriate contact.
O'Brien has previously angered the gay community with his hardline public stance on homosexuality. He was named "bigot of the year" last year by the gay rights charity Stonewall.
He recently said that same-sex marriages would be "harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved" and has long voiced opposition to gay adoption.
But he also called last week for priests to be able to marry and have children.
"Many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood, and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own," he told BBC television.
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond said he had learned of O'Brien's resignation "with the greatest sadness".
"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," he added.
The US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called for a police investigation into how the cardinal had dealt with child sex abuse cases in his archdiocese.
"Compromised by his own sexual misdeeds, it's hard to imagine that O'Brien has properly handled paedophile priests," the group said.
A string of new scandals and allegations have emerged since Benedict became only the second pope in the Church's 2,000-year history to step down of his own free will.
Four members of the conclave are associated with the paedophile priest scandals that have dominated Benedict's eight-year rule as pope.
Thousands of American Catholics have signed a petition calling for US cardinal Roger Mahony, accused of covering up for paedophile priests in Los Angeles for years, to give up his vote in the conclave.
And while 85-year-old Benedict cited his age as the main factor in his resignation, media have speculated that an explosive report into last year's "Vatileaks" scandal may have played a role.
The scandal saw Benedict's butler arrested, convicted and later pardoned for leaking confidential papers to the press.
The Vatican said on Monday that Benedict had seen the report on the scandal, which exposed intrigue and corruption in the Church, and decided that it will be shown exclusively to his successor.