THE Ballycastle-born highest ranking Roman Catholic cleric in Britain is stepping down as the leader of the Scottish Catholic Church.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who was born in Ballaycastle in 1938, announced his decision to resign yesterday (Monday) following allegations - which he contests - of inappropriate behaviour towards priests dating from the 1980s.

In a statement, he apologised to those he had offended during his ministry.

The cardinal confirmed he would not take part in the election for a successor to the Pope - leaving Britain unrepresented in the election.

The Vatican confirmed that the cardinal has stepped down with immediate effect.

Cardinal O’Brien said in his statement he had already tendered his resignation as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, due to take effect when he turned 75 next month, but Pope Benedict “has now decided that my resignation will take effect today (Monday)”.

He said the pontiff would appoint an apostolic administrator to govern the archdiocese in his place until his successor is appointed.

The North Coast man was ordained a priest on 3rd April, 1965 and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and a Diploma in Education.

He was employed by Fife County Council as a teacher of Mathematics and Science from 1966 to 1971 and he also served as assistant parish priest and as chaplain of St Columba Secondary School in Cowdenbeath.

Spiritual director of St Andrew’s College in Drygrange from 1978 to 1980, he was rector of St Mary’ College, Blairs, Aberdeen from 1980 to 1985 and was ordained Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh in 1985.

He was proclaimed Cardinal by John Paul II on 21 October 2003 and was due to retire after he turned 75 on March 17th.

The Observer newspaper reported that three priests and one former priest - from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh - complained to the Pope’s representative to Britain, nuncio Antonio Mennini, in the week before 11 February, when Pope Benedict announced his resignation, of what they claimed was the cardinal’s inappropriate behaviour towards them in the 1980s.

The former priest claims Cardinal O’Brien made an inappropriate approach to him in 1980, after night prayers, when he was a seminarian at St Andrew’s College, Drygrange. The complainant says he resigned as a priest when Cardinal O’Brien was first made a bishop.

A second statement from another complainant says he was living in a parish when he was visited by O’Brien, and inappropriate contact took place between them.

A third complainant alleges dealing with what he describes as “unwanted behaviour” by the cardinal in the 1980s after some late-night drinking.

And the fourth complainant claims the cardinal used night prayers as an excuse for inappropriate contact.

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said: “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.”

Cardinal O’Brien missed celebrating Sunday Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, which marked Pope Benedict’s eight years in office, ahead of the pontiff stepping down this week.

Last week Cardinal O’Brien said he believed priests should be able to marry if they wished to do so, saying the new Pope could consider whether the Roman Catholic Church should change its stance on some issues not of divine origin.