Cardinal George Pell, the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, is seen in this file photograph from 2009.

Sydney -

The victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Australia and their supporters on Tuesday called for the resignation of the church's top ranking cardinal, saying they were unimpressed with his apology.

Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell on Monday appeared at a Victorian state government inquiry into the criminal abuse of children, admitting to cover-ups by a predecessor and saying he was “absolutely sorry”.

“I am fully apologetic and absolutely sorry,” said Pell, who said he never hid any allegations himself and had seen to it that protocols were put in place to deal with cases of sex abuse.

“I'm certainly totally committed to improving the situation. I know the Holy Father (Pope Francis) is too.”

But many in the public gallery of the hearing were left unmoved by the statements from Pell, a former archbishop of the Victorian capital Melbourne.

Stephen Woods, who suffered at the hands of a paedophile priest, said he was surprised by Pell's comments that he acted in the best interests of victims.

“The little care for the victims that he showed, showed that they still don't get it,” Woods told reporters.

“He needs to resign. His era is finished.”

Victims' campaigner Helen Last, from the organisation In Good Faith, said Pell should be removed given his admissions that the church covered up crimes in order to protect its reputation.

“He is actually incompetent when it comes to running such a difficult area that we're dealing with here, where there's so many complexities for people, there's so many issues to do with offenders, the victims, the family and the church itself,” she told the ABC.

“He just showed once again that basically he's not set up to be doing it and I really think that the church should put someone else in there.”

Pell was the final person to appear at the Victorian inquiry looking into the abuse of children by non-government and religious bodies triggered by investigations into the suicide of dozens of child sex abuse victims.

The Catholic Church in Victoria has admitted there were 620 cases of criminal child abuse dating back to the 1930s.

Pell, one of eight cardinals selected by Pope Francis to advise on reforming the Catholic Church's opaque administration, told the inquiry he would be “very surprised” if priests had committed hundreds of rapes in Australia.

But he admitted that the actions of former Melbourne archbishop Frank Little in covering up crimes was “reprehensible”.

Asked whether he agreed that the Catholic Church had placed paedophile priests above the law, he replied: “In some cases, unfortunately.”

Pell, who apologised at Christmas to those who “suffered at the hands” of priests and religious teachers, stressed that much progress had been made as the church became aware of the extent of the problem.

The Catholic Church in Australia, like elsewhere in the world, has been rocked by past sex abuse scandals involving its clergy.

In 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard bowed to growing pressure and ordered a national inquiry into how institutions, including churches and schools, had responded to allegations of paedophilia.

The Victorian inquiry, along with a special commission of inquiry in New South Wales into similar allegations of abuse raised in the state, is expected to inform that national investigation. - Sapa-AFP