Cardinal Keith O'Brien is leaving Scotland for "several months" to undertake a period of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance, the Vatican has announced.

Any return to Scotland would have to be agreed by the Holy See, according to a statement released today.

The statement said: "His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien, archbishop emeritus of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, for the same reasons he decided not to participate in the last Conclave, and in agreement with the Holy Father, will be leaving Scotland for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance.

"Any decision regarding future arrangements for His Eminence shall be agreed with the Holy See.”

Earlier this month, The Herald revealed that Scotland's Catholic leadership had appealed to the Vatican to take action on Cardinal O’Brien after it emerged the disgraced cleric had returned to live in Scotland.

At the time, the church confirmed it had referred the matter to the Vatican, a task most likely to have been carried out by Archbishop of Glasgow Philip Tartaglia in his capacity as president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.

It is understood that Cardinal O'Brien believed it could take up to a year for the Vatican to take any action against him.

Within hours of revelations that the Cardinal had been seen publicly for the first time since the scandal surrounding his gay relationships and abuse allegations broke, senior figures in the Church called on Rome to initiate moves to keep him away from public life.

It is believed the Church feared the cardinal's presence in Scotland could deepen the crisis brought on by the revelations, with no cleric having the authority to instruct him to either remain silent, retire to a monastery or move from the country.

Despite resigning as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh after admitting to sexual activity spanning decades, O'Brien remains a cardinal and the most senior figure in the Catholic Church in Scotland.

His initial decision to return to Scotland angered leading members of the church who believed he had disregarded the impact of his return on the church and his alleged victims.