Catholic Church in Scotland thrown into crisis after extraordinary Keith O’Brien statement

Cardinal Keith O'Brien has signalled he made homosexual advances towards young men, in an extraordinary statement which confirmed he would now withdraw from public life.

The man who just a week ago was the most senior Catholic cleric in the UK admitted his "sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected" but he did not make specific reference to the acts themselves.

The statement comes amid accusations from four men – three priests and one former priest – who say the cardinal attempted to touch, kiss, or have sex with them.

O'Brien said he had initially contested the claims because of their "anonymous and non-specific" nature".

He added: "However, I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.

"To those I have offended, I apologise and ask forgiveness.

"To the Catholic Church and people of Scotland, I also apologise.

"I will now spend the rest of my life in retirement. I will play no further part in the public life of the Catholic Church in Scotland."

The former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh was set to take part in the election of the next Pope, before he was prised out of his role by the departing Pope Benedict, in one of his final acts.

O'Brien was a vociferous and colourful opponent of gay marriage, saying it would lead to "further aberrations" and lead society to "degenerate even further than it already has into immorality".

The comment saw him branded 'bigot of the year' by gay rights group Stonewall but Today programme journalist Evan Davis, who is gay, expressed sympathy for the cardinal's emotional state when he made the comments on the show.

"I think people who struggle to suppress their homosexual urges find that expressing anti-gay views gives them fortitude in their torment," Evans tweeted.

One of the cardinal's accusers said the Church tried to "crush" him and warned him not to make the allegations public or risk tarnishing the reputation of the organisation.