The Church should not be made the scapegoat in an Australian inquiry into child sex abuse, the country's most senior Catholic cleric said on Tuesday as victims welcomed the paedophilia probe.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard ended more than a decade of growing pressure by ordering a royal commission on Monday to investigate the responses of all religious organisations, schools and state care to allegations of abuse.
Sydney Archbishop George Pell said he welcomed the inquiry, which will also examine the responses of not-for-profit organisations and the police, as an opportunity to help victims, “clear the air” and “separate fact from fiction”.
“We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church,” he told a press conference.
“We object to it being exaggerated, we object to being described as the only cab on the rank. I don't think we should be scapegoated.”
The Victorian and New South Wales state governments are investigating allegations of sex abuse by the clergy, including that the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney covered up abuse.
Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, the senior police officer whose public comments about the Hunter Valley intensified pressure for a national inquiry, has said he was ordered off the case involving alleged paedophile priests.
“I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church,” Fox said last week.
Pell said he regretted such allegations because “that's not the case”.
“There is an obligation (on the Church) to inform police of allegations,” he said, adding that the Church had long made strenuous efforts to stamp out abuse.
The cardinal welcomed the fact that the royal commission would not focus exclusively on Catholics, but admitted the Church had struggled to turn around a perception that it was not seriously addressing the problem.
His comments came after a Catholic Brother and a former teacher at a Catholic school, both aged in their late fifties, were arrested Monday by New South Wales police and charged with abuse of children dating back to the late 1980s.
Pell said there was a “persistent press campaign against the Catholic Church's adequacies and inadequacies in this area” but this did not mean its clergy were “largely the principal culprits”.
Victims' groups and their families hailed the inquiry which is expected to run for years.
“We're elated that it's happened. We now need to see good, solid results coming out of it,” said Anthony Foster, whose two daughters were raped by their Catholic parish priest for years, starting when they were young children.
“It's really, really important now that it moves forward very quickly, that it's well-resourced, that we don't see it dragging on forever,” he told state broadcaster ABC.
Gillard refused to put a deadline on the royal commission, but said the government had already taken the first steps towards shaping the terms of reference for the inquiry.
“It's not the right approach to say let's do it quickly and not do it thoroughly,” she said told reporters in Perth.
“It's also not the right approach to be hypothetically war-gaming how long it could take.” - Sapa-AFP