ObrienThe UK’s highest ranking Catholic and a former recipient of gay rights charity Stonewall’s ‘Bigot of the Year’ award has admitted to sexual conduct “below the standards expected” of him.

Fomer Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, was been accused of “inappropriate behaviour” towards one former and four current male priests last month.

Despite initially denying the allegations and claiming he was seeking legal advice, he resigned as leader of Scotland’s Catholic Church last week and said he would no longer take part in the election of the new Pope.

“In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them,” O’Brien said in a statement at the weekend.

“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.”

He said he would now spend the rest of his life in retirement and play no further part in the public life of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

O’Brien has been a staunch opponent of marriage equality, previously describing same-sex marriage rights as “grotesque” and akin to the legalisation of slavery.

“I think if the UK does go for same sex marriage it is indeed shaming our country,” he said in March 2012.

“We’re taking standards which are not just our own but standards from the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations where marriage is defined as a relationship between man and woman and turning that on its head… I would say that countries where this is legal are indeed violating human rights.”

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