Irish-born Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien has resigned effective immediately and will not take part in the papal conclave. His resignation means there will be no British representative at the conclave.

O’Brien had been accused by four priests of sexual exploitation when they were much younger, with some of the charges going back 30 years. He had previously denied the charges. They made an official complaint to the Papal Nuncio in Britain.

In a statement, the Antrim-born prelate said he had previously submitted his resignation as per usual when a cardinal reaches 75 but “the Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today."

Cardinal O'Brien said "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.

Read more: Priests make sexual allegations against Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien

"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.

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."

"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."

The Guardian's Observer reported that the four, priests from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, complained to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain.

The Vatican announced yesterday that they had received the complaint and that the pope  would deal with it.

The pope’s spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, said "The pope is informed about the problem and the issue is now in his hands."

O’Brien was to be  the only UK cardinal allowed to attend the conclave.