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Britain's most senior Catholic cleric 'accused of inappropriate acts' misses Sunday Mass

Vatican receives complaints from three priests and a former priest over allegations running back over 30 years

Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, has today missed Sunday Mass amid accusations of 'inappropriate behaviour'.

The Vatican has received complaints from three priests and a former priest over the behaviour of Britain's most senior Catholic clergyman, accompanied by a call for his immediate resignation, it was reported last night.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland, is at the centre of the allegations of inappropriate behaviour running back over 30 years, The Observer newspaper claimed.

The complainants, from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, took their concerns to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican's ambassador to Britain. The claims are being contested, a spokesman for the cardinal told the newspaper.

The allegations include a claim of an inappropriate relationship with another priest. Statements were sent to the nuncio's office. The Observer reported that it had seen emails which suggested the nuncio had indicated that he "appreciated their courage" for coming forward.

The complainants have reportedly indicated that they were too frightened to come forward before.

One seminarian said he was inappropriately approached after night prayers.

The newspaper quoted statements filed with the nuncio which said that "Priest A" described being happily settled in a parish when he claimed he was visited by O'Brien and inappropriate contact between the two took place.

Another reportedly claims that "Priest B" alleges that he was starting his ministry in the 1980s when he was invited to spend a week "getting to know" Cardinal O'Brien at the archbishop's residence. The statement alleges that he found himself dealing with what he describes as unwanted behaviour by the cardinal after a late-night drinking session.

The ex-priest who is among the four complainants was quoted by The Observer as saying: "You have to understand the relationship between a bishop and a priest. At your ordination, you take a vow to be obedient to him.

The cardinal was named "Bigot of the Year" by the gay rights charity Stonewall last year after arguing against same sex marriages. Cardinal O'Brien, 74, is due to retire next month but before then is due to have a say in who succeeds Pope Benedict XVI after he stands down on 28 February. Cardinal O'Brien said last week that he had not reached a decision on who he thinks should be the next pope, but suggested he might support a younger pontiff.

The discovery of the complaints, which date back as long ago as 1980, came as the Vatican asked for the media to stop "gossiping" about the reasons for Pope Benedict XVI's decision to step down.

Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's chief spokesman, said reporters were guilty of spreading "misinformation" and trying to profit from a difficult time within the Church. He accused some media outlets of "slander".