SYDNEY (AFP) - An Australian state inquiry into the handling of child sex cases by the Catholic Church on Wednesday said religious leaders trivialised the problem and recommended concealment of abuse should be a crime.
Its report tabled in the Victorian parliament follows a long-running probe and concluded that "we can reasonably estimate that there have been several thousand victims criminally abused in non-government organisations in Victoria alone".
The most senior Catholic in Victoria, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, previously admitted to the hearing that the Church had been too slow to act on paedophile priests, but insisted things had changed.
The report, "Betrayal of Trust", said failure to report serious child abuse should lead to prosecution, a move likely to conflict with the church's insistence that information gathered in the confessional should remain secret.
It also recommended making it illegal to groom a child; a new state law making it a criminal offence to allow a child to remain at risk; and streamlined legislation to make it easier for victims to sue.
The report also suggested an independent statutory body to oversee the handling of sexual abuse allegations within government, non-government and religious organisations.
Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, who is a Catholic, said the state government would immediately begin drafting new legislation, which should be introduced to parliament early next year.
"I'm ashamed and embarrassed by the actions of the Catholic Church, or the lack of actions on these matters," he said.
"The evidence throughout the report is that the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in regard to their approach and culture and their culture seemed to be one of protecting their priests and putting the interests of the church ahead of the interests of children and victims.
"That is totally and utterly wrong."
The report, which focused on the Church but also examined other non-government groups including the Salvation Army, said it was "beyond dispute that some trusted organisations made a deliberate choice not to follow processes for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse".
"There has been been a substantial body of credible evidence presented to the inquiry and ultimately concessions made by senior representatives of religious bodies, including the Catholic Church, that they had taken steps with the direct objective of concealing wrongdoing."
The inquiry heard "graphic accounts that detailed horrendous and traumatic experiences of victims abused as children in the care of non-government organisations that spanned a period of decades through to more recent times".
It found the Catholic Church had often trivialised the problem, shielded abusers or failed to disclose what was going on to protect its image with even more recent cases seeing only generic apologies and offers of compensation without admissions of guilt.
Inquiry committee chairman Georgie Crozier said children had suffered terribly.
"Children were betrayed by trusted figures in organisations of high standing and suffered unimaginable harm," she said.
"Parents of these children experienced a betrayal beyond comprehension. And the community was betrayed by the failure of organisations to protect children in their care."
Victim support group Broken Rites said the report was "a real milestone in this journey".
"It validates that the victims are not guilty in any way and the church, through their neglect of their duty, are the ones at fault," said spokesman John McNally.
The Catholic Church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, has endured a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses by priests.
A national royal commission is currently under way after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of paedophilia.