Australian Catholic Church admits slow to act on sex abuse

SYDNEY (AFP) - The most senior Catholic in the Australian state of Victoria on Monday admitted the church had been too slow to act on paedophile priests, but insisted things had changed.

Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart was speaking at a state government inquiry into the handling of child sex cases by religious and non-government bodies after hundreds of children were abused by clergy.

The Church has previously told the hearing that about 620 children had been abused since the 1930s.

"I would certainly say that the church has been slow to act," Archbishop Hart said. It took 18 years for paedophile priest Desmond Gannon to be defrocked.

"Well better late than never," he said of Gannon, adding that "we were too slow to realise what was going on. These awful criminals are secretive and cunning."

The church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, has endured a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses by priests.

Last November, Prime Minister Julia Gillard ordered a national inquiry after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of paedophilia, two months after the Catholic Church in Victoria revealed hundreds of children had been abused.

Archbishop Hart, who has been the Melbourne archbishop since 2001, acknowledged that one of his predecessors, Archbishop Frank Little who died in 2008, had kept information about two paedophile priests secret and moved them to other parishes.

"Archbishop Little kept all these things to himself and there were no records," he said.

When pressed on whether there had been a cover-up, he said: "Well I have to agree with that." He added: "The only person who's ultimately responsible is the archbishop at the time."

He insisted the church had a zero-tolerance attitude to child abuse and was working to change the way it responded.

"I do think that one of the things that we want to do together as a community and church is really to identify how we can do things better," he said.

Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, Sydney Archbishop George Pell, is expected to appear at the Victoria inquiry next week, reports said.

Archbishop Pell, one of eight cardinals selected by Pope Francis to advise him on reforming the Catholic Church's opaque administration, apologised at Christmas to those who "suffered at the hands" of priests and religious teachers.

As well as the Victoria and national investigations, there is also a special commission of inquiry in New South Wales into similar allegations of abuse raised in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney.