Australia PM Julia Gillard announces child abuse probe

media captionAustralian Prime Minister Julia Gillard: "Child abuse is always wrong, always heartbreaking"

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a national inquiry into institutional responses to the sexual abuse of children.

The move followed pressure from lawmakers amid police claims the Roman Catholic Church had concealed evidence of paedophile priests.

The inquiry will look at religious groups, NGOs and state-care providers as well as government agencies.

Ms Gillard said a Royal Commission was the best way to investigate the claims.

Late last week, the state of New South Wales announced an inquiry after a top policeman, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, accused the church of trying to silence investigations into allegations of abuse.

Chief Inspector Fox, who had investigated several cases of sexual assault over 35 years, had called for a Royal Commission in an open letter.

"I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church," he wrote.

A separate parliamentary inquiry into church sex abuse began last month in Victoria.

'Ill-founded and inconsistent"

Ms Gillard said the allegations that had come to light were "heartbreaking", concerning "insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject".

"The individuals concerned deserve the most thorough of investigations into the wrongs that have been committed against them," she said in a statement.

Ms Gillard said there would be discussions with relevant state leaders on how the national inquiry would relate to existing probes.

The terms of reference for the inquiry, and the proposed commissioner, would be announced in coming weeks.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said he would support a wide-ranging commission, but said the investigation should not focus solely on the Catholic Church.

In a statement, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, representing Australian bishops, said it supported the announcement of a Royal Commission.

It said the church deeply regretted the suffering and trauma endured by children who had been in the church's care, but said that "talk of a systemic problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is ill-founded and inconsistent with the facts".

Abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests has been a major issue in Australia recent years.

In September, the Roman Catholic Church in the Australian state of Victoria confirmed that more than 600 children had been sexually abused by its priests since the 1930s.

During a visit to Australia in July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI met some of the victims and made a public apology for the abuse.

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