Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's highest-ranking Catholic leader, says he is resigning as archbishop in the wake of misconduct allegations and will be skipping the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
The cardinal said in a statement Monday that he will not attend because he doesn't want media attention focused on him during the important session in Rome.
Experts said the decision not to attend the papal conclave is unprecedented; never before has a cardinal stayed away from a conclave because of personal scandal, according to Vatican historian Ambrogio Piazzoni, the vice prefect of the Vatican library.
The Vatican confirmed that O'Brien had resigned as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh. It was accepted under the code of canon law due to O'Brien's age; he turns 75 — the normal retirement age for bishops — on March 17.
He said in a statement that he is in "indifferent health" and that he had offered his resignation last November. A church statement says the pope accepted O'Brien's resignation on Feb. 18.
"Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended," he said.
O'Brien has said through his spokesman that he is contesting allegations made Sunday in a British newspaper that three priests and a former priest have filed complaints to the Vatican alleging that the cardinal acted inappropriately with them.
The Observer newspaper did not name the priests, but it said their allegations date back to the 1980s. There were no details about the alleged inappropriate behavior.
The one-sentence Vatican statement issued Monday made no reference to those allegations.
"The pope has been informed, and the question is in his hands," Lombardi said.
During a briefing with reporters at the Vatican last week, Piazzoni was asked about the campaign to keep Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony away from the voting because he covered up sexual abuse by priests.
Piazzoni said while in the past some cardinals have been impeded either by illness or by interference from their governments, none has stayed away because of a stain on his own reputation.
He noted that any decision would have to be approved by the full College of Cardinals, given that the main duty of a cardinal is to vote in a conclave.
"The thing that characterizes a cardinal is to be an elector of the pope," he told reporters.
Winfield reported from Rome.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.