Australia Church child sex inquiry urges sweeping changes

SYDNEY - An Australian state parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child sex cases by the Catholic Church on Wednesday recommended sweeping changes including that concealment of abuse should be a crime.

The report tabled in the Victorian parliament follows a long-running probe that heard that at least 620 children had been abused by the clergy since the 1930s.

The most senior Catholic in Victoria, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, previously admitted to the hearing that the Church had been too slow to act on paedophile priests, but insisted things had changed.

The report, "Betrayal of Trust", said failure to report serious child abuse should lead to prosecution, a move likely to conflict with the Church's insistence that information gathered in the confessional should remain secret.

The report also recommended making it illegal to groom a child, a new state law making it a criminal offence to allow a child to remain at risk and streamlined legislation to make it easier for victims to sue.

It also suggested an independent statutory body to oversee the handling of sexual abuse allegations within government, non-government and religious organisations.

"It is beyond dispute that some trusted organisations made a deliberate choice not to follow processes for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse," said the report, which focused on the Church but also examined other non-government groups.

"There has been been a substantial body of credible evidence presented to the inquiry and ultimately concessions made by senior representatives of religious bodies, including the Catholic Church, that they had taken steps with the direct objective of concealing wrongdoing."

The inquiry heard "graphic accounts that detailed horrendous and traumatic experiences of victims abused as children in the care of non-government organisations that spanned a period of decades through to more recent times".

Prior to the 1990s, it found the Catholic Church either trivialised the problem, shielded abusers or failed to disclose what was going on to protect its image.

Inquiry committee chairwoman Georgie Crozier said children had suffered terribly.

"Children were betrayed by trusted figures in organisations of high standing and suffered unimaginable harm," she said.

"Parents of these children experienced a betrayal beyond comprehension. And the community was betrayed by the failure of organisations to protect children in their care."

The Catholic Church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, has endured a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses by priests.

A national royal commission is currently under way after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of paedophilia.