The Catholic Church has appointed a former Federal Court judge to head an inquiry into its handling of a NSW priest who admitted to sexually abusing boys as young as 10.

Antony Whitlam, QC, the son of former prime minister Gough Whitlam, and a former federal Labor politician, was appointed to lead the independent inquiry jointly commissioned by Bishop of Armidale, Michael Kennedy, and the Bishop of Parramatta, Anthony Fisher.

A joint statement from the two senior clergymen did not outline the terms of reference of the inquiry, other than that it would look at "the processes related to the management of 'Father F' who has been the subject of media reports in relation to allegations of abuse of children".

"Further details of the inquiry process will be developed in consultation with Mr Whitlam QC," it said.

"This inquiry is not intended to supplant or replace any investigations that the police or other appropriate authorities may intend to undertake."

Father F, who cannot be named for legal reasons, admitted that he "sexually interfered with" five boys aged about 10 or 11 between 1982 to 1984 while he was an assistant priest at Moree. In two cases, he admitted that the abuse had continued monthly for 12 months.

The admissions, made during a meeting with three senior clergy in 1992, were recorded in a letter from one of the priests, Vicar-General of the Armidale diocese Wayne Peters, that was sent to his bishop, Kevin Manning, eight days later.

Father F was removed from ministry but not reported to police.

The three priests have given conflicting accounts of what happened at the meeting since allegations of abuse in the Parramatta and Armidale dioceses were aired on the ABC's Four Corners this month.

Monsignor Peters has refused to explain why, despite his letter, he told the program that Father F had admitted to "instances of misconduct" but nothing that amounted to an admission "in the legal sense".

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference general-secretary, Father Brian Lucas, told the Herald that admissions of "wrongdoing" were made, but claimed Father F did not provide names of his victims so the church did not advise the police.

The chancellor of the archdiocese of Sydney, Monsignor John Usher, relied on a "personal note" of the meeting to confirm his recollection that no admissions of "actual criminal conduct" were made, the archdiocese said in a statement.

Father F also told a court in 2004 that he had made admissions of performing oral sex on young boys to the three priests during the 1992 meeting, which was prompted by further reports of sexual abuse after Father F was moved to Parramatta.

Father F, who was defrocked in 2005, lives in Armidale.

"Bishops Kennedy and Fisher extend their deepest sympathies to victims of child abuse and their families, and reassure the community of their commitment to see justice achieved," the statement said.

The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, said in a statement that he would ensure that the two priests of the archdiocese, Father Lucas and Monsignor Usher, would co-operate fully with the inquiry.

"The Archdiocese of Sydney co-operates fully with police investigations and I confirm that the Archdiocese will co-operate with any police investigation of the ex-priest F," he said.