Australia is launching a federal investigation into sexual abuse of children, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Monday. The decision came after a string of accusations surrounding the Roman Catholic Church outraged Australians and spurred regional inquiries.
The royal commission will center on institutional responses to allegations of such “insidious, evil acts,” Gillard said, scrutinizing religious and government institutions, schools and other organizations.
“I believe we must do everything we can to make sure that what has happened in the past is never allowed to happen again,” the prime minister said.
Government officials had faced growing pressure to take action after a veteran police detective in the state of New South Wales wrote a public letter accusing the church of covering up abuse, silencing victims and thwarting police investigations.
“Many police are frustrated by this sinister behavior, which will continue until someone stops it. You have the power to do that, Mr. Premier,” Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox wrote in his open letter to the leader of New South Wales. “The whole system needs to be exposed; the clergy covering up these crimes must to be brought to justice and the network protecting pedophile priests dismantled.”
Responding to his plea, New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell earlier announced a special commission to delve into the issue, but only in the Newcastle area. Similar allegations are also being investigated in neighboring Victoria state, where the church recently revealed at least 620 children had been abused by clergy since the 1930s.
Fox argued local investigations weren’t enough because alleged abusers were often moved. Gillard showed “intestinal fortitude” by deciding to investigate nationally, he told the Australian newspaper.
"For a prime minister to come out and say, 'We believe you, there is something very wrong out there, we are going to sit up and listen,' it's just amazing," he said.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said it welcomed the investigation and was horrified by such crimes but said “talk of a systemic problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is ill-founded and inconsistent with the facts.” Major changes have been made since “failures” decades earlier, it 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. … I believe the air should be cleared and the truth uncovered,” Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell said in a statement released Monday.
Gillard said more details of the royal commission would be determined in the following weeks.
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