Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a national inquiry into the Catholic church’s responses to child sex abuse after a series of scandals involving paedophile priests.
Gillard made the announcement on Monday in the wake of claims by a senior policeman that a Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales destroyed evidence and silenced investigations.
“There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil,” Gillard said. “I believe in these circumstances that it is appropriate for there to be a national response through a royal commission.”
Gillard had been under growing pressure to establish a national inquiry after the recent allegations but she said the probe would be broader than just the Catholic Church.
“This is not a royal commission targeting any one church,” Gillard said.
Calls for a national inquiry intensified in September when the Catholic Church in Victoria revealed that at least 620 children had been abused by clergy in that state since the 1930s.
In early November, a senior police investigator also alleged that the church had covered up sexual abuse of children in the Hunter Valley, just north of Sydney, to protect paedophiles and its own reputation.
Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox said it was his experience that the church not just covered up, but silenced victims, hindered police, alerted offenders, destroyed evidence and moved priests to protect the church.
Fox also said they agreed with the nationwide probe saying limiting an inquiry to one region was ineffective, particularly as priests alleged to have committed offences were often moved interstate.
“I’ve got no doubt that it’s got tentacles everywhere,” he said Monday. “State boundaries aren’t going to stop these sorts of predators from operating.”
Meanwhile, Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has said he supports the inquiry but added that the church had worked hard to stamp out abuse.
“Critics talk as though earlier inadequacies are still prevalent,” he said, adding that it was unjust for anyone to suggest crimes were being, or had been, committed, without producing evidence.
The church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, has endured a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Sydney in 2008, he met victims and offered a historic apology for child sex abuse by priests, saying he was “deeply sorry” and calling for those guilty of the “evil” to be punished.
Gillard said the more recent allegations were heartbreaking.
“These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject,” she told reporters in Canberra.
Gillard said she did not yet know how far back the commission would investigate. She commended victims for speaking out.
“They deserve to have their voices heard and their claims investigated.”
Gillard said further announcements, including the proposed Commissioner and detailed terms of reference, would be made in coming weeks after discussions with victims’ groups, religious leaders and community organisations.
Gillard will review the latest information and then make a decision but her Trade Minister Craig Emerson made clear the government was appalled at the reports.
“Whether it is within or outside of the Catholic Church, child abuse is just completely unconscionable and terrifying for the children and leaves enduring scars, usually for the rest of their lives,” he said.
The conservative opposition, led by Tony Abbott, said ahead of Gillard’s announcement it was prepared to support a wide-ranging royal commission as long as it was not limited to one institution.