Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who became a symbol of the Catholic church's worldwide sexual abuse scandals, has died aged 86.

Cardinal Law, whose resignation from his Boston post in 2002 shocked the church and brought abuse into the open, had been living in Rome and was in declining health in recent years.

The Vatican did not give a cause of death but sources close to the Cardinal, who died in a hospital in Rome, said he had been suffering from the complications of diabetes, liver failure and a build up of fluids around the heart, known as pericardial effusion.

He was archbishop of Boston for 18 years when Pope John Paul II - who in 1984 had appointed him to run one of the most prestigious and wealthy US archdioceses – reluctantly accepted his resignation on 13 December 2002, after a tumultuous year in church history.

Law had offered to step down several times that year, as a succession of devastating stories by the Boston Globe's Spotlight team showed how priests who sexually abused children had been moved from parish to parish for years under his tenure without informing parishioners or law authorities.

When the pope finally accepted the resignation, it sent shock waves through the American Church and began a trickle down effect around the world, as the cover-up techniques used in Boston were discovered to have been used in country after country.

 Pope John Paul II (L) meets Cardinal Law in a private audience on 13 December 2002 at the Vatican.

The story of how the Globe team doggedly brought the scandal to light in a city where few wanted to cross the politically powerful Church was told in the 2015 film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

The situation in Boston turned out to be the tip of an iceberg of abuse and its cover-up, where clergy preferred protecting the reputation of the institution rather than the innocence of children.

Thousands of cases came to light around the world, including Ireland, as investigations encouraged long-silent victims to go public.

Six months after his resignation, the Massachusetts attorney general's office announced that Cardinal Law and others would not face criminal charges.

After a period in a monastery in the United States, he moved to Rome.

In 2004 Pope John Paul II appointed him to be archpriest of the Rome Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four major basilicas of Christendom, whose gold leaf ceiling is said to be made from the first batch of the precious metal Columbus brought back from America.

In relative terms it was an immense fall from grace. Such posts are symbolic and ceremonial.

But victims of sexual abuse were outraged because it gave the Cardinal a second career and a golden parachute that allowed him to stay close to the centre of power in Rome and serve as a member or adviser in several influential Vatican departments.

He also maintained the rank of cardinal and participated in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict in 2005.

Before he became ill, Cardinal Law was a regular on the diplomatic circuit, attending receptions, including many in the gardens of the US embassy to the Vatican.

Bernard Francis Law was born on 4 November 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, the son of a US Army official and a musician.

He graduated from Harvard University and was ordained a priest in 1961.

His first assignment was in Mississippi, where he received death threats for championing civil rights.

As bishop of Springfield Cape Girardeau in Missouri, he opened a home for battered women and a centre to help Vietnamese boat people.