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— Cardinal Francis George, a vigorous defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy who played a key role in the church's response to the clergy sex abuse scandal and led the U.S. bishops' fight against new health care reform, has died after a long fight with cancer. He was 78.

George, who retired as Chicago archbishop in the fall of 2014, a few months before announcing his treatment for kidney cancer had failed, died late Friday morning, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

"Let us heed his example and be a little more brave, a little more steadfast and a lot more loving," Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich said during a news conference, describing his predecessor as "a man of great courage."

Appointed to Chicago in 1997 by Pope John Paul II, the Chicago native became a leading figure of his era in many of the most important events in the American church.

At the height of the abuse crisis in 2002, George led a group of U.S. bishops who persuaded resistant Vatican officials to more quickly oust guilty priests — a policy at the core of reforms meant to restore trust in church leaders. He also oversaw the contentious new English-language translation of the Roman Missal, one of the biggest changes in Catholic worship in generations.

And in his three years as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, George spearheaded opposition to the Affordable Care Act, arguing that President Barack Obama's health insurance law would allow taxpayer money to fund abortion. The Chicago archdiocese's charitable arm helped sue the Obama administration in 2012, over the requirement that employers provide health insurance covering contraception.

"I don't believe the bishops have been more politically active in recent years, but it is true that our political activity is more adversarial," George told the Jesuit magazine America in 2014.

George grew up in a working class neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side, and a five-month bout with polio at age 13 left him with a lifelong limp. He was initially rejected from a high-school seminary because he was disabled, but he went on to become an intellectual leader within the church.

He earned two doctorates, spoke Italian, Spanish, French and other languages, and wrote several books.

In 1990, he was appointed bishop of Yakima, Washington, then archbishop of Portland, Oregon, before assigned to Chicago.

George's appointment to the Archdiocese of Chicago — the nation's third-largest with 2.2 million parishioners — underscored the shift under John Paul toward drawing a more definitive line about what could be considered truly Catholic.

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