Britain's most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, is stepping down as the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

It follows allegations, which he contests, of inappropriate behaviour towards priests dating from the 1980s.

Pope Benedict XVI has put into effect the resignation, which was tendered some months ago on age grounds.

In a statement this morning, Cardinal O'Brien, 74, said he would not be joining the conclave to choose a successor to Pope Benedict.

He said he did not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on him.

This means Britain will have no representative at the conclave.

Cardinal O'Brien, who is originally from Ballycastle, Co Antrim, stood down from some frontline duties in the Catholic Church in Scotland last year due to his age.

Last week, he said he would be "happy" for priests to be able to marry and that many priests struggle to cope with celibacy.

He said that marriage was not considered when he was studying for the priesthood, but added he would be happy to see it introduced.

Cardinal O'Brien has been an outspoken opponent of the Scottish government's plans to legalise same-sex marriage and was controversially named "bigot of the year" by a gay rights charity last November.

Pope allows for earlier conclave meeting

Separately, Pope Benedict has changed Catholic Church law regulating the conclave that will elect his successor, meaning it can start earlier.

The change to a constitution by his predecessor John Paul II means cardinals no longer have to wait 15 days after the papacy becomes vacant on 28 February before they start the conclave.

The Vatican also said that a report into papal documents leaked by Pope Benedict's butler in the so-called "Vatileaks scandal" last year will remain confidential and will only be shown to the next pontiff.

It said: "The holy father has decided that the facts of this investigation, the contents of which are known only to himself, will be made available exclusively to the new pontiff."

Sections of the Italian media had called for the report to be made public ahead of the conclave that will choose the next Pope.