VATICAN CITY -- Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric announced his resignation Monday, a day after being accused of "inappropriate acts" with priests, saying he would not attend the conclave to elect a new pope.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien said he had submitted his resignation months ago, and the Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI had accepted it Feb. 18. But the announcement's timing, a day after news reports of alleged abuse appeared in Britain, suggested that the Vatican had encouraged the cardinal to stay away from the conclave.
"Everybody's been struck by how quickly Rome responded," said Austen Ivereigh, director of the British church advocacy group Catholic Voices. "Clearly, Rome saw that there was sufficient substance to the allegations. They would not have told him to stand down unless they thought there was something worth investigating."
The move leaves Britain without a voting cardinal in the conclave and is bound to raise questions about other cardinals. It comes amid a campaign by some critics to urge Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles not to attend the conclave because of his role in moving priests accused of abuse to other parishes.
It also comes just days after the Vatican Secretariat of State issued a harsh statement against recent media reports, including ones alleging a gay sex scandal inside the Vatican. The statement said cardinals should not be affected by external pressures when they vote for the next pope. About 115 cardinals are expected to be at the gathering.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former archbishop of Westminster, will attend the meetings in Rome before the conclave, said Mr. Ivereigh, the cardinal's former spokesman, but is past the voting age cutoff of 80 years old.
On Monday, Pope Benedict changed the laws governing the conclave to allow cardinals to move up the start date before the traditional waiting period of 15 to 20 days after the papacy is vacant. He met with three cardinals who had conducted a secret inquiry into a scandal over leaked documents and ruled that their report's contents would be known only to his successor, not to cardinals entering the conclave.
Cardinal O'Brien's announcement came a day after The Observer newspaper reported that four men had made complaints to the pope's diplomatic representative in Britain, Antonio Mennini, the week before Pope Benedict announced Feb. 11 that he would be stepping down as of Thursday. The Observer said the accusations, dating to the 1980s, had been forwarded to the Vatican.
Last week, Cardinal O'Brien drew different headlines, telling the BBC that the next pope should consider abandoning the church's insistence on priestly celibacy, and suggesting it might be time for the papal conclave to choose a pontiff from Africa or Asia, where church membership has been rising as it has fallen across Europe and North America.
On Monday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, played down the connection between the news reports and Cardinal O'Brien's resignation, which the pope accepted after the cardinal reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.
A statement by the media office of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland said Cardinal O'Brien had informed the pope some time ago of his intention to resign as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh as his 75th birthday approached March 17, but no date had been set. The cardinal said in the statement: "The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today, 25 February 2013."
"Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God," he said. "For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.
"I also ask God's blessing on my brother cardinals who will soon gather in Rome," the statement said, adding: "I will not join them for this conclave in person. I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me -- but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor."
Cardinal O'Brien, whose office had initially said he would fly to Rome before the conclave, has been head of the Catholic Church in Scotland since 1985 and was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He was among the cardinals who attended the conclave that chose Pope Benedict as John Paul's successor in 2005.