''Child abuse is a vile and evil thing'' ... Julia Gillard announcing the commission. Photo: Channel Ten
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 systemic 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 to this evil.
''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. The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, said the Coalition would support a royal commission that looked further than only 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,'' Mr Abbott 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.''
The former prime minister Kevin Rudd also backed a royal commission, after expressing doubt about the ability of several 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 that given the sheer scope of the commission, more than one commissioner might be appointed.
She put no time limit on the inquiry, saying that was ''not knowable'' but it would ''take quite some time''.
She said the inquiry 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 informed the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, his Victorian counterpart, Ted Baillieu, and the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell.
Hours earlier, Mr O'Farrell was resisting a royal commission, saying it would interfere with or delay the special commission he had established to investigate allegations of abuse by Catholic clergy in the Hunter region.
Mr O'Farrell later welcomed the announcement. ''These heinous offences don't stop at state boundaries,'' he said.
Cardinal Pell also welcomed Ms Gillard's announcement. ''I believe the air should be cleared and the truth uncovered,'' he said. ''We shall co-operate fully with the Royal Commission.''
However, he complained about the media coverage of the church, saying ''public opinion remains unconvinced that the Catholic Church has dealt adequately with sexual abuse''.
''Ongoing and at times one-sided media coverage has deepened this uncertainty. This is one of the reasons for my support of the royal commission.''
The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, said: ''The diocese of Sydney expresses its unqualified abhorrence of child abuse, wherever it occurs … We will work and pray for an outcome which will result in a safer society for the most vulnerable.''
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's been on the phone to some family members of victims and they've just been crying.''
Chief Inspector Fox praised the swift action of the Prime Minister, saying it stood in stark contrast to the ''dismal'' and ''sad'' reaction of Mr O'Farrell.
''I think it shows the calibre of a politician to make the call that's been made today,'' he said on Monday night.
Ms Gillard said the commission need not interfere with, or delay, any police investigations into abuse, and other inquiries, such as that set up by Mr O'Farrell, would continue.