The Archbishop of Cardiff, the Most Rev John Ward, was questioned by Metropolitan Police officers after newspaper allegations that he abused the girl while he was a parish priest in Peckham, south London, in the early 1960s.
He was questioned in the presence of his solicitor and released on police bail. He is due to report back, pending a report from the Crown Prosecution Service. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: "A man attended Walworth police station with his solicitor this morning in connection with allegations of serious sexual offences against a girl in the 1960s. He was arrested and bailed to return on 9 March."
The 70-year-old archbishop returned to his official residence in Cardiff last night. His spokesman, Canon Robert Reardon, said: "The archbishop's position is that he has not been charged with any offences and he strenuously denies any allegations.
"He continues to co-operate fully with the police. It is going back almost 40 years ago and we regard it as very baffling."
The allegations were made by a 45-year-old woman now living in Ireland who is understood to have claimed she was raped three times on church premises in Peckham in the 1960s.
In a statement last night the archbishop said: "I vigorously deny these allegations against me. The truth will out, it will set us free. Those who know me will have no problems accepting that."
He went on: "Accusations must be answered in an atmosphere of trust that upholds the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
"This is not possible when police connections with the media precede arrest and the interview which follows."
He told reporters earlier: "I can say before God that there was no action by me against her. This woman only contacted me once, when she sent a letter outlining her claims. I answered the letter, denying everything...
"I have never touched a woman sexually and that is why I am at peace with myself. The church are being very supportive.
"Nothing has been said by the Pope but I have sent all the documentation to the Vatican ... This will undoubtedly ... hurt many people but my faith is unshakeable."
Catholic church sources admitted last night that the arrest was "hugely embarrassing".
It comes at a particularly sensitive time as the church tries to lay to rest the legacy of sexual abuse among its clergy. A working party, led by the Bishop of Plymouth, the Right Rev Christopher Budd, is due to report at Easter on how to deal with priests convicted of abuse.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, said yesterday: "The archbishop has issued a vigorous denial of these allegations. I have known him well for many years and he has my full support."
The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Pablo Puente, who is the Vatican's ambassador to Britain, was unavailable for comment.
Archbishop Ward was educated at Prior Park College, Bath, before entering a Franciscan friary in 1945. He was ordained a priest in 1953.
He was a parish priest in Peckham from 1960 to 1966 and worked in Rome from 1970 to 1980.
He was made Archbishop of Cardiff in 1983.Reuse content