Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour, is stepping down with immediate effect.
He said he tendered his resignation some time ago, but added: "The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today."
Cardinal O'Brien, Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, said he would not be joining the conclave to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI: "I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me - but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor."
In a statement issued by the Scottish Catholic Church, he said: "I have valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest. 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."
Cardinal 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. The resignation was accepted on February 18 but only announced today, according to the statement from the Scottish Catholic Church.
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 on Sunday 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.
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."