A prominent Catholic cardinal resigned on Monday, saying he did not want allegations of his “inappropriate” conduct with priests to mar the election of a new pope.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the highest-ranking Catholic leader in Britain, said he is removing himself from the upcoming conclave because he does not want to become a distraction as the College of Cardinals selects a new pope.

O’Brien was the only British cardinal expected to be voting at the conclave.

Vatican historians say it’s the first time a cardinal has withdrawn from a papal conclave because of a personal scandal.

"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 said in a statement.

"However, I will pray with them and for them that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will make the correct choice for the future good of the Church."

Through a spokesperson, O’Brien has contested allegations of sexual misbehaviour dating back to the 1980s and said he is seeking legal advice.

British newspaper The Observer reported on Sunday that three priests and a former priest in Scotland have reported O’Brien to the Vatican over what they described as inappropriate advances or contact.

The Vatican is insisting that the Pope, who is stepping down Thursday, accepted O’Brien’s resignation because the cardinal will soon reach the retirement age of 75.

In the past, O’Brien has opposed Church doctrine by suggesting that Catholic priests should be allowed to marry, saying many of them have “found it very difficult” to deal with celibacy.

He has also strongly opposed gay marriage, condemning homosexuality. 

Some observers believe the timing of the scandal involving O’Brien is deliberate and indicates that political jockeying is already underway ahead of the conclave.

“Last time you had that mourning period (for deceased Pope John Paul II) and there was a certain amount of respect. This time that disappeared so the fighting started early,” said Greg Burke, a media consultant to the Vatican.

The Pope changed the rules of the conclave on Monday, allowing the cardinals to meet earlier than usual to start the process of choosing his successor. The goal is to have a new pope in place before Easter.

Also on Monday, it was announced that the Pope won’t share the results of an investigation into the leaks of Vatican documents with cardinals ahead of the conclave.

After meeting with three cardinals who conducted the probe, the Pope decided that "the acts of the investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new pope," the Vatican said in a statement.

The Vatican leaks revealed corruption and infighting among the Catholic Church’s highest ranks. They also revealed allegations that senior Vatican officials threatened to out a Catholic newspaper editor as gay.

The Pope's butler was convicted of aggravated theft in October for stealing the documents and giving them to a journalist.

With a report from CTV’s Todd Battis and files from The Associated Press