Seven per cent of Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in Australia between 1950 and 2010 but the allegations were never investigated, "shocking and indefensible" data showed Monday during an inquiry into paedophilia in the church.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard that 4,444 alleged incidents of pedophilia were reported to church authorities and in some dioceses, more than 15 per cent of priests were perpetrators.
Australia ordered the Royal Commission in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate allegations of child abuse across the country, with the inquiry now in its final phase after four years of hearings.
"Between 1950 and 2010, overall seven per cent of priests were alleged perpetrators," said Gail Furness, the lawyer leading questioning at the inquiry in Sydney.
"The accounts were depressingly similar. Children were ignored or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious (figures) were moved," she added.
"The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover-ups."
The average age of the victims at the time was 10 for girls and 11 for boys.
Of the 1,880 alleged perpetrators, 90 per cent were men.
The St John of God Brothers religious order was the worst, with just over 40 per cent of members accused of abuse.
The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
The church in Australia set up the Truth, Justice and Healing Council to coordinate its response.
"These numbers are shocking, they are tragic, they are indefensible," its chief executive Francis Sullivan told the commission.
"This data, along with all we have heard over the past four years, can only be interpreted for what it is: a massive failure on the part of the Catholic Church in Australia to protect children from abusers.
"As Catholics we hang our heads in shame."
The inquiry has embroiled Australia's most senior Catholic cleric George Pell, now the Vatican's finance chief, who was questioned over his dealings with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
Pell was also accused of historic sex abuse claims when he was the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney in 2002, but was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
He has denied all allegations.
Since being set up, the commission has made over 300 referrals to police but so far there have only been 27 prosecutions with 75 cases pending.