Jeff J Mitchell/GETTY IMAGES - Cardinal Keith O'Brien, 74, leader of the Scottish Catholic Church, has been reported to the Vatican over claims of â€œinappropriateâ€ and â€œintimateâ€ behavior with priests, dating back to the 1980s. U.K.â€™s top cardinal accused of â€˜inappropriateâ€™ and â€˜intimateâ€™ behavior with priests LONDONâ€” On the same day as his last public blessing Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI confronted the threat of a fresh scandal within the church hierarchy, with Vatican officials informing him of new allegations that Britainâ€™s most senior Roman Catholic cleric had engaged in inappropriate behavior with priests. In Britain, the accusations against Cardinal Keith Oâ€™Brien â€“ head of the church in Scotland and one of this nationâ€™s most strident opponents of gay rightsâ€”were already escalating into a national controversy. The controversy revolved around a report first published Saturday night on the Web site of Britainâ€™s Observer newspaper, saying that four men â€“ three current and one former priest â€” had denounced Oâ€™Brien earlier this month for engaging in â€œinappropriateâ€ and â€œintimateâ€ behavior. Through a spokesman, Oâ€™Brien denied the charges and was said he was seeking legal counsel. If proven true, the allegations could rock the church at a highly sensitive time, highlighting a Vatican in crisis as its cardinals begin to gather in Rome to pick the popeâ€™s successor after his surprise resignation earlier this month. The exact nature and timing of the alleged contactâ€”which the Observer said was reported to the Vaticanâ€™s emissary in London a week before Benedictâ€™s Feb. 11 resignation â€”was not spelled out. But one of the alleged victims claimed Oâ€™Brien had instigated a â€œrelationshipâ€ with him in the 1980s that resulted in the need for long-term counseling. Another of the men said Oâ€™Brien had initiated â€œinappropriate contactâ€ during nightly prayers, according to the paper. Poised to join the upcoming conclave to elect a new pope, Oâ€™Brien missed Sunday mass in his dioceses of St. Andrews and Edinburg . His auxiliary, Bishop Stephen Robson, read a statement at the cathedral in Edinburgh, saying â€œa number of allegations of inappropriate behavior have been made against the cardinal. The cardinal has sought legal advice and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time. There will be further statements in due course.â€ He added, according to the BBC, that, â€œit is to the Lord that we turn to now in times of need." The Vatican declined to confirm details of the allegations against 74-year-old Oâ€™Brien, who was due to retire next month, saying only that Benedict had been informed of the â€œproblemâ€ on Sunday and the matter was now â€œin the handsâ€ of the outgoing pope. The allegations surfaced a week after the church became the focus of fresh leaks in the Italian press, which cited an internal Vatican report as detailing the existence of a gay lobby inside the institution that was subject to outside blackmail. Responding to the reports, the Vaticanâ€™s Secretariat of State chided the media for â€œwidespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions.â€ In Britain, however, the Observer report was considered additionally explosive because of Oâ€™Brienâ€™s public stance on homosexuality. Last year, Oâ€™Brien decried the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage here as a â€œgrotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.â€ He has described homosexuality as immoral, and was singled out by the London-based gay advocacy group Stonewall for a 2012 â€œbigot of the yearâ€ award. Allies of O'Brien, however, were quick to defend him, saying judgment should be reserved until a full airing of the facts emerged. â€œThese allegations have not been proved in any way,â€ Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former Archbishop of Westminster, told the BBC. â€œSo I think he will have to decide whether he goes or not [to the conclave].â€‰.â€‰.We must listen first of all to what he has to say.â€ The Observerâ€™s report did not specify the extent to which the alleged encounters were consensual or ultimately resulted in sexual acts. None of the four men were named, and could not be independently reached.The Observer quoted one man who said he was a 20-year-old seminarian in the 1980s when first approached by Oâ€™Brien. After Oâ€™Brien was promoted to bishop, the unidentified man said he left the priesthood, â€œto preserve my integrity.â€â€œYou have to understand the relationship between a bishop and a priest,â€ the paper quoted the man as saying. â€œAt your ordination, you take a vow to be obedient to him. He's more than your boss, more than the CEO of your company. He has immense power over you. He can move you, freeze you out, bring you into the fold.â€‰.â€‰. he controls every aspect of your life.â€ The paper said the men recently reported their claims to the Vatican emissary in London with the aid of an intermediary from their diocese in the week before the popeâ€™s resignation. The move appeared pegged to Oâ€™Brienâ€™s planned retirement next month. The men were demanding Oâ€™Brienâ€™s immediate resignation and also apparently went public in an effort to block the cardinal from taking part of the papal conclave. The allegations surfaced at time when the papal conclave is being cast in an unwelcome spotlight. Lay groups are orchestrating a campaign to prevent Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the former Archbishop of Los Angeles, from attending the conclave to choose the next pope. Mahoney was stripped of his duties last month over allegations he shielded pedophilic priests in the 1980s. Victims rights groups were quick to demand swift action of the Vatican on the allegations against Oâ€™Brien. â€œIt doesn't matter that the offenses may have been years ago or that the victims may have technically been adults,â€ said Barbara Blaine, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. â€œWhat matters is that once again, a shrewd, high-ranking Catholic official misused his role and status and power to harm and selfishly take advantage of vulnerable teens and young men.â€ Yet church watchers said the full impact of the allegations against Oâ€™Brien were still emerging, saying it remained unlikely that the Vatican would seek to block him from attending the conclaveâ€”an event Oâ€™Brien has previously said he would attend.â€œThe events of the last weeks have come so fast and furious and this is so out of the blue I just don't know what the answers are,â€ said John Pollard, a papacy expert at the University of Cambridge. â€œWe don't know what the next moves of the cardinal or the priests will be, we need to sit and wait.â€Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed to this report.