Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric, has stepped down as leader of the Scottish Catholic Church following allegations of inappropriate behavior towards priests from the 1980s onwards.
O'Brien reportedly tendered his resignation in November — before the allegations — as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edingurgh. The pope accepted his resignation last week, saying it should be announced Feb. 25.
BBC News reported that the pontiff will appoint an apostolic administrator to take over the archdiocese until a successor is appointed.
According to AFP, O'Brien would have been Britain's only cardinal to vote on a succesor for Pope Benedict. O'Brien's resignation statement reportedly confirmed that he would not be taking part in the conclave.
According to the Associated Press, Pope Benedict changed the rules of the conclave that will elect his successor, one of his final acts as pope. According to the new law, the cardinals may move up the start date of the conclave if they are all arrive in Rome before the 15-day transition period.
O'Brien's shock resignation amid of accusations of "inappropriate acts" toward fellow priests has added to the air of disarray and scandal in the top echelons of the Catholic Church.
Italian media has been abuzz with speculation that there are darker reasons behind Benedict's decision to step down than the official announcement citing old age and poor health. Some reports have suggested the pope resigned after receiving a report on intrigue, blackmail and gay sex among senior churchmen at the Vatican.
The Vatican has denounced the speculation as untrue.
Cardinal O'Brien — an outspoken critic of gay rights — said he was stepping down to avoid unwelcome media attention during the conclave due to start in early March.
Paul Ames reported from Brussels. Follow him on Twitter @p1ames.