FINDINGS of a fresh ­investigation into allegations against shamed Catholic Cardinal Keith O'Brien are being sent to the Vatican.

The report by Archbishop Leo Cushley - Cardinal O'Brien's successor as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh - contains allegations by three priests from the archdiocese.

The written complaints characterise Cardinal O'Brien as a "sexual predator" who used his authority to compel the priests into coercive and abusive sexual relationships.

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Cardinal O'Brien is understood to be of the view that the relationships were consensual and not coercive.

He resigned as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh last year after admitting sexual misconduct with other clerics and was exiled from Scotland by the Vatican.

When he took over, Archbishop Cushley pledged all complaints from clergy and parishioners over the scandal would be fully investigated.

A spokesman for Archbishop Cushley said: "Archbishop Cushley has listened to the parties concerned and will transmit any information provided to him to the Holy See.

"Archbishop Cushley will assist in any way he can in order to help bring a just and equitable conclusion to the matter for all involved.

"Any decision on further action will be a matter for the Holy See as jurisdiction in the matter rests with the Pope."

The move will again put the issue of Cardinal O'Brien's ­behaviour in the spotlight and may force Pope Francis to make a final judgment.

The three priests, as well as a fourth former priest of the diocese, had initially dealt with the papal nuncio, the Pope's ambassador in London.

However, they have now entrusted Archbishop Cushley, a former Vatican diplomat who worked closely with Pope Francis and his predecessor, to convey to Rome the treatment they received at the hands of the cardinal.

The documents detailing their allegations have now been sent by Archbishop Cushley to the Congregation of Bishops, from where they are expected to be passed to the Secretariat of State.

Under canon law, the legal framework that governs the ­Catholic Church, only the Pope can pass judgment on or "sentence" a cardinal.

One possible outcome is that a "promoter of justice" is appointed to the case and asked to investigate. Both sides may be viewed by the Vatican as guilty of the "canonical crime" of breaking a commandment, thou shalt not commit adultery, a catch-all for sexual sins.

However it will be the responsibility of the promoter, who acts in a way similar to a procurator fiscal in Scots law, to determine if Cardinal O'Brien was guilty of behaviour that would warrant further punishment in light of his senior position.

Under canon law, Cardinal O'Brien will be able to defend himself and insist, as he has done in private to friends, that these relationships were "consensual" and not "coercive". He could do so by providing letters, e-mails, text or photographs as evidence.

A source close to the Vatican said: "There could, eventually, be a canonical trial and Pope Francis could ask O'Brien to resign from the College of Cardinals and hand back his red hat, but I do think it is unlikely.

"What may happen instead is that after looking at all the evidence they decide not to pursue the matter on the grounds that he has already been forced to resign and has been disgraced, or the Pope may instruct him to spend a second, longer period in prayer and penance."

Last May, Cardinal O'Brien returned to Scotland with a view to retiring to a house belonging to the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh in Dunbar.

He was then ordered by Pope Francis to move to a religious house in England.

Since the cardinal's period of penance and prayer has elapsed he has made several trips to Scotland to visit friends, but reports suggest he continues to reside in the religious house in Cumbria.