THE Vatican has ordered Cardinal Keith O'Brien to leave Scotland in its first public move over the sex scandal surrounding him.

Britain's most senior Catholic cleric stepped down from his post as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh earlier this year after several priests made allegations against him. He later admitted inappropriate sexual conduct during his church career.

In a short statement – its first in the three months since the revelations broke – the Vatican said the cardinal "will be leaving Scotland for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance". The Church hopes this will bring a degree of closure to the scandal, with accusers said to be content with the action taken.

Despite its brevity, the statement clearly states the role of Pope Francis, claiming that "any decision regarding future arrangements for His Eminence shall be agreed with the Holy See".

However, questions remain over Cardinal O'Brien's future and what further action, if any, the Vatican intends to take over his admissions of gay sexual encounters over decades and allegations of abuse by a number of serving priests and former seminarians.

Confirmation of Rome's instruction comes almost a fortnight after The Herald revealed Cardinal O'Brien had been ordered out of the country after being photographed at the cottage in East Lothian he planned to retire to.

There had been concerns within the Church in Scotland his return would wreak more damage.

The Herald also revealed that Archbishop of Glasgow Philip Tartaglia was behind an appeal to the Vatican to intervene after Cardinal O'Brien's re-emergence in Scotland this week.

It is understood that exiling the cardinal, for whatever the length of time, has delivered what the three priests and former trainee priest who made the first public complaints had been seeking.

The announcement has been at least a week in the offing and some in the Catholic Church expected it to have been made before now, the delay put down to the Vatican's reluctance to react to the media.

The timing has also been explained by Rome "playing a game of chess" and waiting to see if further revelations would emerge. One source claimed that removing the cardinal from any role within the Church may prove to be the only sanction taken against him. No complaint has ever been made to the police over the alleged incidents.

Another priest who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Cardinal O'Brien in Rome on the night he was made cardinal in 2003 is understood to be content with how the Vatican dealt with his complaint last autumn.

It is expected Cardinal O'Brien will travel to Rome for a period of time, but not being an Italian speaker could return to England – where he has friends – or to Ireland, where he was born and spent his early years. But he will not be abandoned by the Catholic Church, despite speculation he would be laicised.

The Vatican said: "His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien - 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."

Church sources last night said the removal of the cardinal from Scotland was "not a banishment order", but that his presence in the country was "unhelpful to him and unwelcome by the Church".