VATICAN CITY — Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric revealed his resignation Monday, a day after being accused of ‘‘inappropriate acts’’ with priests.
The cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, said he had submitted his resignation months ago, and the Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI had accepted it Feb. 18. However, the timing of the announcement — a day after news reports of alleged abuse appeared in Britain — suggested that the Vatican had encouraged the cardinal to stay away from the coming conclave to select a new pope.
‘‘Everybody’s been struck by how quickly Rome responded,’’ said Austen Ivereigh, director of the British church advocacy group Catholic Voices. ‘‘Clearly Rome saw that there was sufficient substance to the allegations. They would not have told him to stand down unless they thought there was something worth investigating.’’
The move leaves Britain without a voting cardinal in the conclave and it is bound to raise questions about other cardinals. It comes amid a campaign by some critics to urge Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles not to attend the conclave because of his role in moving priests accused of abuse to other parishes.
It also comes days after the Vatican Secretariat of State issued a harsh statement against recent media reports — including ones alleging a gay sex scandal inside the Vatican. It said that cardinals should not be affected by external pressures when they vote for the next pope. About 115 cardinals are expected to be at the gathering.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former archbishop of Westminster, will attend meetings in Rome before the conclave but is past the voting age cutoff of 80 years old.
O’Brien’s announcement came a day after The Observer newspaper reported that four men had made complaints to the pope’s diplomatic representative in Britain, Antonio Mennini, that reached him the week before Benedict announced Feb. 11 that he would be stepping down as of Feb. 28.
The Observer said the accusations, which dated to the 1980s, had been forwarded to the Vatican.
Last week, O’Brien drew different headlines, telling the BBC that the next pope should consider abandoning the church’s insistence on priestly celibacy and suggesting that it might be time for the papal conclave to choose a pontiff from Africa or Asia, where church membership has been growing as it has fallen across Europe and North America.
On Monday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, played down the connection between the media reports and O’Brien’s resignation, which the pope accepted under a norm of church law that says he had reached the retirement age of 75.
A statement issued by the media office of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland said O’Brien had informed the pope some time ago of his intention to resign as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh as his 75th birthday approached March 17 but that no date had been set.
The cardinal said in the statement: ‘‘The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today, 25 February 2013.’’
‘‘Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God,’’ he said. ‘‘For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.’’
In explaining his decision not to attend the conclave, 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.’’
O’Brien has been the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland since 1985, and he was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He was among the cardinals who attended the conclave that chose Benedict as John Paul’s successor in 2005.
The resignation met with mixed responses in Scotland, ranging from satisfaction among gay and lesbian groups to dismay among others who saw O’Brien as a strong voice for Scotland and its 750,000 Catholics, as well as an influential advocate for the poor and aid to the developing world. He has been a frequent visitor to Catholic missions in Africa.