Force priests to report child abuse, says panel

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Make celibacy optional, Royal Commission tells Catholic Church in Australia

SYDNEY Australia should introduce a law forcing religious leaders to report child abuse, including Catholic priests who are told of abuse in the confessional, a report into institutional child abuse released yesterday said.

The 17-volume document from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse marks the end of one of the world's biggest inquiries into child abuse.

The five-year investigation found "multiple and persistent failings of institutions to keep children safe, the cultures of secrecy and cover-up, and the devastating effects child sexual abuse can have on an individual's life", the commission said in a statement, Reuters reported.

The commission was contacted by more than 15,000 victims who detailed claims of abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools, often dating back decades, AFP reported.

More than 4,000 institutions were accused of abuse, many of them Catholic-managed.

"We will never know the true number," the report said.

It said abuse occurred in almost every place where children attended for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities. "Some institutions have had multiple abusers who sexually abused multiple children," it said.

"Society's major institutions have seriously failed. In many cases those failings have been exacerbated by a manifestly inadequate response to the abused person. The problems have been so widespread, and the nature of the abuse so heinous, that it is difficult to comprehend."

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said it had "exposed a national tragedy".

More than 2,500 referrals have been made to police, with 230 prosecutions under way.

The report called for a National Office for Child Safety and standards, reporting and record keeping to cover all institutions in child-related work.

The inquiry, which spanned religious, government, educational and professional organisations, heard many accounts alleging cover-ups in the Australian Catholic Church, including ones of moving priests suspected of abuse between parishes to avoid detection.

Of all the victims who reported abuse in religious institutions, more than 60 per cent cited the Catholic Church.

The report said clergy who are told of child abuse in the confessional should be required by law to report it and called for the Catholic Church to make celibacy voluntary for clergy, saying it contributed to child abuse.

It also called for a new criminal offence that would make it easier to prosecute institutions which failed to protect children.

"I'm appalled by the sinful and criminal activity of some clergy, religious and lay church-workers," said Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher. "I'm ashamed of the failure to respond by some church leaders... I stand ready to address any systemic issues behind this."

The inquiry heard that the Catholic Church has paid A$276 million (S$285 million) in compensation to thousands of child abuse victims since 1980.

It embroiled Australia's most senior Catholic cleric George Pell, now the Vatican's finance chief. He is accused of multiple offences, with a committal hearing in March due to decide if there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial.