DISGRACED Cardinal Keith O'Brien was removed from all public life and forced into retirement just days before he would celebrate 50 years as a Catholic cleric.

Cardinal O'Brien, who turned 77 earlier this week, was told by Pope Francis he would no longer be permitted to perform any public, religious or civil duties associated with the title.

Rome's ruling came two years after he stood down as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh after admitting sexual relationships dating back decades.

The Cardinal had been expected to celebrate 50 years in the priesthood with close friends still in the clergy in the first week in April.

In a letter to his clergy yesterday, Cardinal O'Brien's successor, Archbishop Leo Cushley, told how after the Vatican's special advisor on sex crimes had been sent to Scotland "concerning incidents of sexual misconduct by members of the clergy".

Pope Francis had personally evaluated the information and accepted the resignation.

The sanction confirms the Vatican has now formally accepted the claims of the four priests who claimed Cardinal O'Brien's had been guilty of inappropriate sexual conduct with them.

It is understood there will be no further action against any serving members of the Catholic clergy caught up in the allegations.

The Herald spoke to one former seminarian who made separate complaints against the Cardinal dating back to the early 1980s. The man, now in his 50s, simply said: "I had wanted this to be brought to an end as quickly as possible."

One close friend of one of the four who made the first public accusations said: "The trauma he has caused priests and seminarians. The vocations he ended before they began.

"The embarrassment he caused those he worked with in office, the faux rage against homosexuality. The lives he broke, alcoholism, suicide and destitution followed where he put his hands. Even his apology was for offending, not for wrecking lives. It wasn't an apology at all. I hope all his victims are able to move on."

Scotland's leading historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine, said the announcement allowed the church to now draw a line under the story.

He said: "The Pope's intervention is justice tempered with mercy. Dignity has been preserved, the priests involved have had their day in court and been listened to and the matter hasn't been swept under the carpet.

"The process will never be entirely transparent but it's been handled well.

"The Cardinal will have no public role or office and can now go into obscure retirement."

Already there has been speculation that the current Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, will be made a Cardinal in 2018.

Archbishop Cushley yesterday said Cardinal O'Brien's behaviour distressed many, demoralised faithful Catholics and made the Church less credible to those who are not Catholic.

He added: "For my own part, I would like to express sorrow and regret to those most distressed by the actions of my predecessor. I also pay tribute to those who had the courage to come forward to speak. I hope now that all of us affected by this sad and regrettable episode will embrace a spirit of forgiveness, the only spirit that can heal any bitterness and hurt that still remains."

Cardinal O'Brien said: "I wish to repeat the apology which I made to the Catholic Church and the people of Scotland some two years ago now on 3rd March 2013.

"I then said that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me. For that I am deeply sorry."

Only a Pope can approve a cardinal resigning his official status, and the announcement is extremely rare in Church history.

The closest parallel to today's events came in 1927 when French Cardinal Louis Billot resigned from the Sacred College of Cardinals following a stormy meeting with Pope Pius XI over the former's connection with extreme right wing groups. His resignation was accepted by the Pope eight days later.