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PM orders sex abuse inquiry

Date

Australian Financial Review chief political correspondent

View more articles from Phillip Coorey

Julia Gillard speaking regarding the Royal Commission into child sex abuse at a press conference yesterday.

Julia Gillard speaking regarding the Royal Commission into child sex abuse at a press conference yesterday. Photo: Michel O'Sullivan

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has launched the most comprehensive inquiry into child sexual abuse in Australia's history with a nationwide royal commission to investigate churches, charities, state governments, schools, community organisations and even the police.

After fresh allegations last week about systematic abuses and cover-ups by the Catholic Church in NSW, federal cabinet agreed late on Monday to establish a commission that would look at the sexual abuse of children inside institutions and the frequent, and often deliberate, failure to do anything about it.

''Any instance of child abuse is a vile and evil thing,'' the Prime Minister said. ''There have been too many adults who have averted their eyes.''

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''There has been a systematic failure to respond to it and to protect children.''

The decision came as pressure to act built to bursting point and it has widespread support across politics. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said the Coalition would support a royal commission that looked further than the Catholic Church.

''Any investigation must be wide-ranging, must consider any evidence of the abuse of children in Australia, and should not be limited to the examination of any one institution,'' he said. ''It must include all organisations - government and non-government - where there is evidence of sexual abuse. Victims must be allowed to heal, and perpetrators must be brought to justice.''

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd also backed a royal commission, after expressing doubt about the ability of state inquiries to get to the bottom of the issue.

Numerous Labor backbenchers and independent MPs joined the clamour on Monday, as did the state MP, Fred Nile.

Ms Gillard said the commission's terms of reference would be finalised by Christmas after consultation with the states, churches, victim support groups and other relevant organisations. She said, given the sheer scope of the commission, more than one commissioner might be appointed. She put no time limit on it, saying that was ''not knowable'' but it would ''take quite some time''.

She said the commission would investigate ''all religious organisations'', state government care groups, not-for-profit bodies, schools and responders to abuse complaints such as child services agencies and police.

Before the announcement, Ms Gillard told NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, his Victorian counterpart, Ted Baillieu, and Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal Pell said: ''I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement. I believe the air should be cleared and the truth uncovered. We shall co-operate fully with the royal commission.''

Hours earlier, Mr O'Farrell was resisting a royal commission, saying it would interfere or delay the special commission he had just established to investigate allegations of abuse by Catholic clergy in the Hunter region.

Mr O'Farrell has rejected calls for a state-wide royal commission into events in the Hunter but welcomed Ms Gillard's announcement.

''These heinous offences don't stop at state boundaries,'' he said.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, the Hunter police officer whose call for a royal commission into the alleged cover-ups in NSW last week revived the issue, was elated.

''I'm thrilled to bits,'' he said. ''My wife's in tears, she been on the phone to some family members of victims and they've just been crying.''

Ms Gillard said the commission need not interfere with, nor delay, any police investigations into abuse and she said other inquiries, such as the one just established by Mr O'Farrell, would continue.

The Royal Commission is the first established by a federal government since 2004 when the Howard government established an inquiry into the Labor Party's ownership of a Canberra commercial property, Centenary House.

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