Britain's most senior Catholic cleric resigns, hours after the Vatican announces plans to investigate claims of inappropriate behaviour.

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Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who was the only British cleric with a say in choosing the new Pope, is resigning as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

The Northern Ireland-born cleric missed Sunday mass yesterday after complaints made against him by three priests and a former priest were reported in a Sunday newspaper. Cardinal O'Brien should have been travelling to the Vatican this week to help choose the next Pope.

In his resignation statement, the cardinal referenced the allegations that are engulfing him. He said: "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."

Three priests and a former priest from the cardinal's St Andrews and Edinburgh diocese made allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which were reported to the Pope's representative in Britain two weeks ago. Yesterday the cardinal denied the claims and said he was seeking legal advice.

How Catholicism buckled under the global weight of allegations
Cardinal Keith O'Brien's resignation is the latest incident to shake the Catholic church, which has been beset by scandal ever since abuse allegations started dripping in the early 90s.

Back then, much of the whispering of scandal came from Ireland, with the defence cast along two central lines: firstly, that any abuse was the work of a few bad apples rather than an institutional failure. The other was that the problems stemmed from Ireland's excessively deferential Catholic culture.

But those lines of defence have since been shattered. In 2009 the Ryan report exposed decades of systematic abuse of thousands of children at the hands of the Catholic church; while the Murphy report, from the archdiocese of Dublin, concluded that the church authorities had engaged in "the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets".

Further startling revelations have been uncovered in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy and as far as Latin America. Most recently has been the revelations surrounding key figures in the US. They include Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of Philadelphia, who retired in 2011, five months after the archdiocese unconvered an abuse scandal. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, was last week questioned over the abuse of children by priests in his former archdiocese of Milwaukee. Meanwhile Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of All Ireland, is also facing a firestorm after admitting he did nothing to stop paedophile Father Brendan Smyth who abused hundreds of children in Ireland and the US.

This morning the cardinal, who has been outspoken on issues including gay marriage, euthanasia and abortion, confirmed that he is to step down immediately, saying: "The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today."

He confirmed he would not be joining the conclave to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, saying: "I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focussed on me - but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor."

Cardinal O'Brien resigns (Image: Reuters)

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."

He added: "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.

For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended - Cardinal Keith O'Brien

"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."

In resigning his post as the head of the Scottish Catholic Church, Cardinal O'Brien closes a career just weeks before his 75th birthday.

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