Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader, said on Monday that he wouldn’t take part in the Conclave to elect the next Pope after being accused of improper conduct with priests, an unprecedented first head to roll in the mudslinging that has followed Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign.

The Pope accepted the Cardinal’s resignation as Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh — submitted in November last — because he is due to turn 75 next month, the normal retirement age for bishops. But simultaneously, the Cardinal issued a statement on Monday saying he would also skip the Conclave because he didn’t want to become the focus of media attention at such a delicate time for the church.

The Cardinal has said through his spokesman that he is contesting allegations made on Sunday in a British newspaper that three priests and a former priest have filed complaints to the Vatican alleging that he had acted inappropriately with them. The Observer newspaper did not name the priests, but it said their allegations date back to the 1980s. There were no details about the alleged inappropriate behaviour.

It was the first time that a Cardinal has said he was staying away from a Conclave because of personal scandal, and comes in the wake of a grass-roots campaign to shame another Cardinal, retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, into refraining from participating because of his role in protecting sexually abusive priests.

Cardinal Mahony, however, has said he will participate in the voting for the new Pope.

With Cardinal O’Brien’s decision and the illness of an Indonesian Cardinal, there are expected to be 115 Cardinals under age 80 who are eligible to vote in the conclave.

In another development on Monday, Pope Benedict decided that the contents of a secret investigation into the 2012 leaks of Vatican documents would not be shared with the Cardinals ahead of the Conclave. The Pope met with the three elderly Cardinals who conducted the probe and decided that “the acts of the investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new Pope,” a Vatican statement said.

Speculation has been rife in the Italian media that the three Cardinals — Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi — would be authorised to share the information with fellow Cardinals before the Conclave. That assumed the Cardinal-electors would want to know details about the state of dysfunction in the Vatican bureaucracy and on any potentially compromised colleagues before possibly voting one into office.

The Pope appointed the three men last year to investigate the origins of leaks of the Pope’s documents and they had wide-ranging powers to question Cardinals. The leaked documents revealed petty wrangling, corruption, cronyism and even allegations of a gay plot at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. The Pope’s butler was convicted of aggravated theft in October for having stolen the papers and given them to a journalist who then published them in a blockbuster book.

While the three Cardinals cannot share the full contents of their investigation, it is unclear if they could give subtle hints about potential Papal candidates.

The Vatican, while confirming Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation, insisted that the accusations against him had nothing to do with his resignation. The Vatican said the Pope accepted the resignation on February 18 under canon law due to the Cardinals age — he turns 75 on March 17.

Cardinal O’Brien said in a statement that he is in “indifferent health” and had offered his resignation last November. “Looking back over my years of ministry — For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended,” he said.

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