Australia: Julia Gillard orders major inquiry into child abuse

Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. Picture: Getty
Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. Picture: Getty
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Australia’s prime minister has ordered a Royal Commission investigation into allegations of child sex abuse in state and religious institutions and community groups following a string of sexual abuse accusations against priests and claims of a Catholic Church cover-up.

Julia Gillard had faced mounting pressure to order an inquiry after the New South Wales state premier last week ordered an investigation into allegations of a sexual abuse cover-up by Catholic priests in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney.

Authorities in Victoria are also investigating a separate series of priest sex abuse allegations in their state.

The Royal Commission – the highest form of investigation in Australia – would look into responses from schools, charities and churches and would not ­target any single organisation, Ms Gillard said.

“Any instance of child abuse is a vile and evil thing. Australians know that,” Ms Gillard said yesterday.

“Australians know, from the revelations that they’ve read in recent weeks, that too many children have suffered child abuse, but have also seen other adults let them down. They’ve not only had their trust betrayed by the abuser, but other adults who could have acted to assist them have failed to do so.”

The investigation will target religious and state institutions, plus schools and community groups such as sporting clubs. It will also look into police responses to abuse allegations and is expected to take several years to complete.

Last week, New South Wales ordered an inquiry after a veteran police detective wrote an open letter to the state premier accusing the Catholic Church of thwarting his attempts to investigate child sex abuse allegations in the Hunter Valley.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who spent years investigating abuse allegations in the Hunter region, said the Church destroyed evidence, silenced victims and shuffled around accused priests in an attempt to cover up abuse. There have been hundreds of allegations of abuse by priests in the region since the mid-1990s.

Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic official, has previously said he thought a federal inquiry would be a “disproportionate” attack on the church. But in a statement yesterday, he said the church would co-operate with the inquiry, adding that he hoped the investigation would unveil the truth.

In a statement, he said: “Public opinion remains unconvinced that the Catholic Church has dealt adequately with sexual abuse.

“Ongoing and at times one-sided media coverage has deepened this uncertainty. This is one of the reasons for my ­support for this Royal Commission. I welcome the prime minister’s announcement. I believe the air should be cleared and the truth uncovered.”

Officials in Victoria are ­investigating separately how churches and other religious institutions in their state have responded to sexual abuse allegations against clergy.

Ms Gillard said the commission’s terms of reference would be finalised by Christmas, after consultation. She said that given the sheer scope of the investigation, more than one commissioner might be appointed.

DCI Fox said he was “thrilled to bits” at the news of the investigation, adding: “My wife’s in tears. She’s been on the phone to some family members of victims and they’ve just been crying.”