Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Reuters)

The Catholic Church in Australia is under fire after Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a federal inquiry into allegations of child sex abuse in churches, charities and schools.

Accusations of a massive cover-up by the Church have mounted in the past weeks after a case emerged in the Hunter Valley region north of Sidney. Officials are also investigating a separate series of priest sex abuse allegations in the state of Victoria.

"There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil. I believe in these circumstances that it's appropriate for there to be a national response through a Royal Commission," Gillard said.

The Royal Commission, which is the top investigating institution in Australia, will look into a wide range of cases across the nation.

Authorities in the New South Wales state ordered a state probe following the accusation of a veteran police detective, Peter Fox, who spent years investigating abuse allegations, aimed at the Catholic Church. He claimed the church damaged evidence, silenced victims and wrecked his bid to uncover the truth about the allegations.

"Any instance of child abuse is a vile and evil thing. Australians know that," Gillard told reporters in Canberra. "Australians know, from the revelations that they've read in recent weeks, that too many children have suffered child abuse but have also seen other adults let them down. They've not only had their trust betrayed by the abuser, but other adults who could have acted to assist them have failed to do so."

Australia is not new to allegations of abuse by priests but the Church's response has been to ship the offending priests to another diocese, commentators say.

"The denial by the Catholic Church in Australia can be explained only by the desire of its hierarchy to build a wall against these charges," said an editorial by the local Herald Sun. "But it is at the expense of those whose lives have been ruined by the pederasts the church has shielded."

Even Sidney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, who previously claimed an inquiry would be "disproportionate" attack on the church, said the religious institutions will collaborate.

"Public opinion remains unconvinced that the Catholic church has dealt adequately with sexual abuse," he said in a statement. "Ongoing and at times one-sided media coverage has deepened this uncertainty. This is one of the reasons for my support for this royal commission. I welcome the prime minister's announcement. I believe the air should be cleared and the truth uncovered."