Pope Benedict XVI is considering how to respond after being told about allegations that the UK's most senior Catholic has been accused of "inappropriate acts" against fellow priests.
The Vatican confirmed the pope had seen allegations made by priests against Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the head of the Scottish Catholic church, by three serving priests and a former priest in his diocese which date back to 1980.
The claims – which are denied by the cardinal and remain unproven – add to a series of controversies over senior figures in the church and within the Vatican that will overshadow Benedict's final days as pontiff and the first weeks of his successor.
As the pope gave his last pontifical blessing to crowds in St Peter's Square on Sunday morning before stepping down this Thursday, his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said: "The pope is informed about the problem and the issue is now in his hands." O'Brien, who is also due to retire on his 75th birthday next month, is the only Catholic in the UK within the elite group of 117 cardinals eligible to vote on the pope's successor. It is not known whether he will attend the vote.
The claims against O'Brien, reported in the Observer, surround allegations of "unwanted behaviour" following late-night drinking and "inappropriate contact" involving the three priests, who are all serving within the cardinal's diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and a former priest who is now married.
One complainant alleges the cardinal and he developed an "inappropriate relationship" that led to him needing long-term psychological counselling.
Hours after the allegations were published, O'Brien decided not to give mass at his cathedral in Edinburgh on Sunday morning, where he had been due to celebrate Pope Benedict's eight years in office. He cited legal advice.
Bishop Stephen Robson, who is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, the cardinal's diocese, told the congregation: "A number of allegations of inappropriate behaviour have been made against the cardinal. The cardinal has sought legal advice and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time. There will be further statements in due course.
"As always in times of need such as this we cannot but be saddened by the events of the last 24 hours. It is to the Lord that we turn now in times of need."
O'Brien, who has already stood down as chair of the Scottish Catholic bishops' conference because of his age and health, has been a vigorous and outspoken critic of gay rights, denouncing plans for the legalisation of gay marriage as "harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved".
He was named bigot of the year in 2012 by the gay rights group Stonewall. But in an interview broadcast by the BBC on Friday, O'Brien said he believed Catholic priests ought to be able to marry and have children, claiming many priests found it "very difficult to cope" with celibacy.
The allegations against O'Brien were sent to the pope's emissary to the UK, the papal nuncio, Antonio Mennini, in the week before Benedict announced his resignation. They raise questions about whether the cardinal will now attend the conclave in Rome.
The revelation of the priests' complaints – which included a demand for O'Brien's immediate resignation – will be met with consternation in the Vatican.
Allegations of misconduct by members of the church have dogged Benedict's papacy. Following his resignation statement, rumours have swirled in Rome that Benedict's shock move may be connected to further scandals to come.
There are growing demands from Catholics in the US for another cardinal, Roger Mahony, not to take part in the conclave.
In January, the archdiocese of Los Angeles stripped Mahony – its former archbishop – of his public duties after it was revealed he tried to conceal child molestation by priests.
Senior figures in the Catholic church said O'Brien was highly unlikely to stay away from the conclave: they said the claims were unproven and dated back 30 years, while cardinals had a duty to the pope to take part in conclaves.
The former archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who will be travelling to the Vatican to advise voting cardinals, said he was "very sad" to hear about the allegations. Speaking on BBC1's Andrew Marr programme, the cardinal said the church had faced up to other controversies, and "some of them very well indeed". He added: "I don't know what the church will do. I think Cardinal O'Brien is very near to retirement and I suspect his resignation, which is already with the pope, because he's nearing 75 and every bishop has to retire – then presumably that will be accepted."
Murphy-O'Connor said it was up to O'Brien to decide whether to travel to the Vatican: "The allegations have not been proved in any way, so he will have to decide whether he wants to go."
Catherine Pepinster, editor of the leading Catholic newspaper the Tablet, said many people who had met O'Brien would be shocked by the allegations. "He is an immensely personable, warm man, although his language at times, on issues such as gay marriage, can be intemperate," she said.
Adding that O'Brien was obliged by his office as cardinal to go to the conclave, Pepinster said efforts to investigate the allegations would be delayed by the pope's resignation: "There will be an interregnum until the next pope is elected and much of the work of the Vatican will come to a halt.
"Cardinal O'Brien is due to take part in the conclave to elect the next pope. As a cardinal elector he has not only a right but a duty to participate. The participants are there because the pope who gave them the 'red hat' chose them to join the college of cardinals. That is the only stipulation. The conclave is not obliged to be made up of saints."
This is the second time in a few days that allegations of clerical misconduct have intruded on the controversial end to Benedict's stormy papacy. Last Thursday, an Italian daily newspaper linked his resignation to the discovery of a network of gay prelates in the Vatican, some of whom – it said – were being blackmailed by outsiders. La Repubblica said the pope had taken his decision to resign on 17 December, on the day he received a dossier compiled by three cardinals delegated to look into the so-called "Vatileaks affair".
Last May, Benedict's butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and charged with having stolen and leaked papal correspondence that depicted the Vatican as a seething hotbed of intrigue and infighting.
On Saturday the Vatican dismissed the La Repubblica report as an attempt to influence the cardinals choosing a new pontiff. Michael Walsh, a Catholic historian and former Jesuit priest who has recently revised the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, said the Vatican would do well to step back from the allegations and let them be dealt with by the appropriate authorities.
"The Vatican should really leave issues like this to be dealt with locally," he said. "But it's averse to letting that happen; it's power-hungry and what the next pope has to do is bring the Vatican under control. It interferes in these issues but it shouldn't; they should be handled locally."
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