'Persecuted' Pell dies on 'difficult day'

Tony Abbott has labelled Cardinal George Pell "a saint for our times" and likened his jailing on child abuse charges to "a modern form of crucifixion".

The former prime minister led tributes after Pell died aged 81 on Tuesday from heart complications following hip surgery.

But talk quickly turned to the former Catholic archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney and papal adviser's 2018 conviction for molesting two teenage choirboys in 1996.

The conviction was quashed in a unanimous decision by the High Court in 2020.

Having labelled the cardinal a "great son" and "great leader", Mr Abbott said his jailing was a "modern form of crucifixion, reputationally at least a kind of living death".

"He strikes me as a saint for our times. Like everyone who knew him, I feel a deep sense of loss but am confident that his reputation will grow and grow and that he will become an inspiration for the ages," the former Liberal leader said.

"The cardinal was a committed defender of Catholic orthodoxy ... as an ecclesiastical and cultural conservative, he attracted praise and blame from all the expected quarters."

Liberal leader Peter Dutton agreed and took aim at the Victorian government, suggesting it had led to Cardinal Pell's "political persecution".

"The fact he spent a year in prison for a conviction the High Court of Australia unanimously quashed should provide some cause for reflection for the Victorian Labor government and its institutions that led this modern-day political persecution," he said in a statement.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said it was a "difficult day" for many Australians, having expressed the nation's condolences to Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher on Wednesday morning.

"For many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all those who are mourning today," he told reporters in Rockhampton.

He said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would assist in bringing Cardinal Pell's body back to Australia for a burial service at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney after the funeral in the Vatican.

Mr Albanese, who is Catholic, declined to say whether he would attend the Sydney event, adding only that "further announcements will be made when they are finalised".

Former prime minister John Howard said a person of enormous influence had been taken from the nation.

"His deep and compassionate faith sustained him during more than 400 days in prison for alleged crimes which many, me included, believed should never have been the subject of charges," he said.

Child protection advocate and former senator Derryn Hinch was more scathing of the Catholic leader.

"I wish he had lived for another 10 years of deserved public opprobrium," he tweeted.