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Hubert O'Connor, the disgraced Roman Catholic bishop, has died of a heart attack in Toronto. He was 79.

His death was announced by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He resigned as bishop of the British Columbia diocese of Prince George after being charged with sex crimes in 1991.

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He was convicted in 1996 of committing rape and indecent assault on two young aboriginal women during the 1960s when he was a priest. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison by Mr. Justice Wally Oppal, who is now British Columbia's attorney general. After serving six months, the disgraced clergyman was released on $1,000 bail.

The B.C. Court of Appeal later acquitted him of sexually assaulting a student at a Williams Lake residential school, where he was principal.

The appeal court also set aside his conviction for rape of a school secretary, ordering a new trial.

Instead, authorities agreed to drop the rape charge after the former bishop apologized to his accuser in 1998 at a traditional native healing circle held at Alkali Lake, a small native village near Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior.

Earlier, he had told court during a bail hearing that "if I had not broken my vow of chastity I would not be here today. I have paid a very heavy price."

Court heard lurid details about a predatory priest who used his position to attain sex, which he would later insist was consensual. A former student testified he had ordered her to clean his bathroom, then pulled her onto his bed and said: "Let's have some fun."

The former secretary testified he had once presented her with a Christmas gift of a statue of the Virgin Mary before feeling her breasts and trying to kiss her.

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He maintained his innocence throughout the long court battle, arguing his accusers had consented to sex. He admitted to fathering a child who was placed for adoption.

The case attracted widespread attention, as it became a symbol for debate about the role of the justice system in handling cases of aboriginals abused at church-run residential schools.

The original charges were suspended when the defence successfully argued the Crown failed to provide the records of the therapists and psychologists who treated the accusers. A defendant's right to such access was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, a decision bitterly denounced by women's groups and advocates for sexual assault victims.

Parliament later passed Bill C-46, which offered some privacy protection regarding a complainant's counselling records in such cases.

Hubert Patrick O'Connor was born on Feb. 17, 1928, at Huntingdon, Que.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1955 and became bishop of Whitehorse in Yukon in 1971. In 1986, he was named bishop of Prince George, resigning in 1991.

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He died suddenly in Toronto on Tuesday.

Despite his admission of wrongdoing, he retained the honorific of most reverend and held the title of bishop emeritus.

A burial mass is to be held on Aug. 7 at St. Augustine's Church in Vancouver, followed by burial at the Oblate Cemetery at Mission, B.C.

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