The Catholic Church in the Australian state of Victoria on Thursday denied claims by police that it deliberately covered up paedophilia and talked victims out of reporting sexual abuse.
In a submission to a state parliamentary hearing into the handling of child sex abuse cases, Victorian police claimed the church routinely hindered investigations and tipped off suspect priests.
They allege victims were often talked out of reporting matters to police, while suspected offenders were sent to other locations to impede investigations.
The submission, cited by ABC radio, charged that there was an underlying culture within the Catholic Church, and other religions, to hide accusations of abuse rather than exposing it.
“It is in the opinion of Victoria Police that such deliberate action should be criminalised,” the submission said.
Last month, the Victorian Catholic Church revealed that at least 620 children had been abused by its clergy since the 1930s, but said cases had fallen dramatically from the “appalling” numbers of the 1960s and 1970s.
Victims' supporters say the number of children abused was likely much higher.
In reaction to the police submission, church spokesman Father Shane Mackinlay said the church knew “bad decisions” were made in the past where accused priests had been given “treatment” and a “fresh start”.
But he said there had been no deliberate cover-ups, just naivety about paedophilia.
“We certainly accept that wrong decisions were made but they were made because of a lack of appreciation of the significance of sexual abuse and its effect on people, on victims and their families,” he told the ABC.
In comments to other media, Mackinlay said the police submission contained many errors.
“We certainly reject any suggestion that we're seeking to hide offenders at this point,” he said.
Mackinlay insisted that clergy encouraged victims to report abuse to police and seeking compensation from the church.
“That's one of the things we see missing from the police submission, is that the decision about going to the police is something that these people, as adults, should be free to make themselves; they shouldn't be compelled to go to the police,” he said.
The Victorian state government announced the inquiry into the handling of child abuse cases by religious and non-government bodies after the suicides of dozens of people abused by clergy.
The church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, has endured a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Sydney in 2008 he met victims and offered a historic full apology for child sex abuse by predatory priests, saying he was “deeply sorry” and calling for those guilty of the “evil” to be punished.