Prime Minister Tony Abbott's support for Cardinal George Pell over child sex abuse is inappropriate and factually wrong, victims say.
This new controversy came as the Speaker of the Victorian Parliament, Ken Smith, accused the former Melbourne vicar-general, Gerald Cudmore, of committing perjury in evidence he gave to a parliamentary inquiry in 1993. Mr Smith said highly placed Catholics stifled his inquiry's report.
Mr Abbott told Fairfax Radio that Cardinal Pell, a former Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, was the first senior cleric to take sexual abuse by clergy seriously.
Asked whether Cardinal Pell, now Archbishop of Sydney, carried any responsibility for the failures described by the report of the Victorian inquiry into the church's handling of child sexual abuse, Mr Abbott said he hadn't read it.
''As is pretty well known, I have a lot of time for George Pell … my understanding is that the first senior cleric who took this issue very seriously was in fact Cardinal Pell.''
The report, Betrayal of Trust, said the cardinal was reluctant to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the church's failings on criminal child abuse. It also strongly condemned the current Catholic leadership, saying it trivialised and minimised abuse, treated it as ''a short-term embarrassment'', and betrayed the church's purported values.
Advocate Chrissie Foster said Mr Abbott's friendship with the cardinal coloured his thinking. Mrs Foster, two of whose daughters' lives were ruined by paedophile priest Kevin O'Donnell, said after Mr Abbott was elected, she watched him on the platform with his wife and ''three beautiful daughters. I thought of my beautiful daughters and what became of them. The only difference is that my children went to a different Catholic primary school''.
Wayne Chamley, of advocacy group Broken Rites, said Mr Abbott needed to ''check the history''. The first senior cleric to tackle sex abuse by clergy was Sydney Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in the 1990s.
As the architect of the national church abuse protocol Towards Healing, Bishop Robinson quit in 2004, disillusioned with the church's response. Just weeks before that protocol, Cardinal Pell launched the Melbourne Response, which only applies in that city and deflects responsibility for responding to victims away from the archbishop.