Australia Child Sex Abuse Inquiry Launched

Australia's prime minister has announced a royal commission that will look at institutional responses to alleged child sex abuse after a series of scandals involving paedophile priests.

Julia Gillard's comments follow claims by a senior policeman that the Catholic Church in an area of New South Wales destroyed evidence and silenced investigations.

The country's leader had faced increasing pressure to establish a national inquiry after the recent allegations as well as an ongoing inquiry in Victoria state, but said the probe would be broader than just the Catholic Church.

Ms Gillard said: "There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil. I believe in these circumstances that it is appropriate for there to be a national response through a royal commission."

"This is not a royal commission targeting any one church," she told reporters.

The terms of reference have yet to be decided, but the commission will cover all religious organisations, as well as those providing state care and other not-for-profit bodies. It will also look at the response of the police.

A senior police investigator last week alleged that the Catholic Church had covered up sexual abuse of children in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, to protect paedophiles and its own reputation.

New South Wales authorities last week announced an investigation into the allegations after Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox claimed the church hindered police, alerted offenders and destroyed evidence.

But DCI Fox had urged a full-scale national inquiry, saying limiting a probe to one region was ineffective, particularly as priests alleged to have committed offences were often moved to different states.

"I've got no doubt that it's got tentacles everywhere," he said. "State boundaries aren't going to stop these sorts of predators from operating."

Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has said he supports the New South Wales inquiry but added the church had worked hard to stamp out abuse.

"Critics talk as though earlier inadequacies are still prevalent," he said, saying it was unjust for anyone to suggest crimes were being - or had been - committed, without producing evidence.

Calls for a national inquiry intensified in September when the Catholic Church in Victoria revealed at least 620 children had been abused by clergy in that state since the 1930s.

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 predatory priests, saying he was "deeply sorry" and calling for those guilty of the "evil" to be punished.