SCOTLAND’S most senior Catholic is facing allegations of inappropriate acts stretching back 30 years.

It has been reported that Cardinal Keith O’Brien is at the centre of complaints by three priests and one former priest dating back 33 years.

The four, understood to be from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, are believed to have complained to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain, and demanded O’Brien’s immediate resignation.

A spokesman for the Cardinal said that the claims were contested. A senior source for the Catholic Church told the Sunday Herald last night that he knew nothing about the allegations.

The accusations come just days after the Cardinal sent shockwaves through the Catholic community by saying he would welcome an end to the Church’s celibacy rule for the priesthood.

O’Brien, who is due to retire next month, is due to travel to Rome where he will be the only British Roman Catholic cleric able to vote to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

The priests are said to fear that if he is allowed to travel to the papal conclave the Church will not fully address their complaints.

Two of Britain’s leading religious scholars have welcomed O’Brien’s call to end the celibacy rule for the priesthood, saying it would help tackle child abuse and alleviate a shortage of new priests.

Catholic scholar Michael Walsh, an expert on the history of the Vatican, said O’Brien’s comments were “extraordinary”.

He added: “I think he may feel the clerical culture which has created the possibility for people to hide their abusive behaviour would be ameliorated by having married clergy.”

Professor Nicholas Lash, Norris-Hulse professor emeritus of divinity at the University of Cambridge, welcomed the Cardinal’s “plain speaking”. He added that it was “demographically inevitable” that the Church would shift away from celibacy in order to recruit and retain new priests.

He said: “If it is the case – I believe it to be the case – that the celebration of the Eucharist is at the very heart, the centre of Catholic Christianity, then if you have not got any priests you are starving the Church to death. This is what is happening throughout Latin America especially at the moment.”

Speaking to the BBC ahead of a trip to Rome, O’Brien said: “I realise many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood, and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.”