A British Catholic journalist and former Dominican friar claims a “culture of secrecy” has led to the current crisis in the Vatican over the alleged misconduct of its senior clerics, and has reiterated claims that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to stand down was partly due to concerns of abuse within the Catholic Church.

In a TV interview on Monday Mark Dowd claimed that at least “half” of “all the people attracted into seminaries in the priesthood are gay themselves.”

Yesterday, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, who has been accused of inappropriate behaviour with male priests, announced his retirement a month earlier than planned.

The cardinal, who denied the allegations of inappropriate behaviour last weekend, will not take part in electing a new pope, leaving Britain unrepresented.

In a statement, Cardinal O’Brien apologised to those he had offended for “failures” during his ministry and announced that he was standing down as leader of the Scottish Catholic Church.

The resignation came just days after an Italian newspaper published claims that gay priests – some of them reportedly blackmailed – had allegedly used a sauna and beauty parlour in Rome.

La Repubblica published an article last Thursday claiming that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign was in part finalised by a Vatican report showing that the Holy See was affected by outside influences, including a “gay lobby”.

The Vatican has since refused to confirm or deny claims of a network of gay prelates operating at its heart.

In an interview to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, gay Catholic journalist Mark Dowd said:

“When you have this culture of secrecy and guilt and repression… you have conditions which foster the potential for blackmail and for manipulation.”

“About half,” he said, “if not more, of all the people attracted into seminaries in the priesthood are gay themselves.”

Mr Dowd said the basis for his claim was on conversations with members of the Catholic Church, as well as personal experience.

He also reiterated claims that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to stand down this Thursday was partly over his concerns regarding clerical abuse.

Mr Dowd recounted an interview he conducted several years ago with Pope Benedict XVI’s brother, Georg Ratzinger.

“He said [Pope Benedict XVI] was basically lying awake at night sweating and worrying about it,” the journalist said. “And that actually in terms of his own emotional health it taken a great toll on him.”

Pope Benedict announced on 11 February that he would resign at the end of the month, citing a decline in mental and physical ability as his reason for giving up the taxing position.