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Australia launches child sexual abuse probe

More than 5,000 people expected to testify in commission on child-sexual abuse in state and religious institutions.

Last Modified: 03 Apr 2013 10:46
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Julia Gillard announced the commission in November in the face of a string of sexual abuse accusations [Reuters]

Australia has begun a national inquiry into the sexual abuse of children.

A new commission investigating the allegations said on Wednesday that at least 5,000 child abuse victims will give evidence of their harrowing experiences.

"The task we have is large; the issues are complex,''  said Justice Pete McClellan, the head of the government-appointed inquiry, known in Australia as a Royal Commission.

"But we are now in a position to actively begin the work of gathering the stories and examining the responses of institutions."

Making deadline unlikely

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the commission in November in the face of a string of sexual abuse accusations against priests and claims of a Roman Catholic Church cover-up.

The inquiry was unlikely to achieve its deadline set by the government of late 2015 because so many people wanted to give evidence, McClellan said. 

Witnesses can be compelled to testify and risk imprisonment for lying.

The New South Wales state government had ordered an inquiry a week earlier into allegations of a sexual abuse cover-up by Catholic priests in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney. Victoria state officials had also begun investigating a separate series of priest sex abuse allegations in their state.

Since the federal inquiry was announced, more than 6,000 people have contacted staff in writing or by phone.

The government has offered free legal advice to people who want to make submissions to the inquiry before public hearings begin after September. 

Gillard said the Royal Commission was an important "moral moment" for the nation.

"It is going to require our country to stare some very uncomfortable truths in the face,'' she told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

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