The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the western world, and with more than one billion members worldwide, it is the largest Christian church. Its history spans almost 2,000 years and is rooted in the Church's Canon of Scripture and Tradition. At the head of the church is the Pope, who Catholics believe is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. The Pope, according to the religion's doctrine, can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals. The Catholic Church practises closed communion and only baptised members of the church are permitted to receive the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Australian PM Julia Gillard announces inquiry into child sex abuse by priests
Agence France-Presse in Sydney
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a national inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse yesterday after a series of scandals involving paedophile priests.
Gillard made the announcement in the wake of claims by a senior policeman that the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales had destroyed evidence and silenced investigations.
"There have been revelations of child abusers being moved from place to place rather than the nature of their abuse and their crimes being dealt with," Gillard said.
"There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil.
"I believe in these circumstances that it is appropriate for there to be a national response through a royal commission."
Gillard had been under growing pressure to establish a national inquiry after the recent allegations, but she said the probe would be broader than just the Catholic Church.
"This is not a royal commission targeting any one church," Gillard said.
Allegations by a senior police investigator emerged last week that the Catholic Church had covered up sexual abuse of children in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, to protect paedophiles and its own reputation.
Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox said it was his experience that the church not just covered up, but silenced victims, hindered police, alerted offenders, destroyed evidence and moved priests to protect the church.
He said limiting an inquiry to one region was ineffective, particularly as priests alleged to have committed offences were often moved interstate.
"I've got no doubt that it's got tentacles everywhere," he said. "State boundaries aren't going to stop these sorts of predators from operating."
The conservative opposition, led by Tony Abbott, said ahead of Gillard's statement it was prepared to support a wide-ranging royal commission if it were not be limited to one institution.
Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, said earlier that the church had worked hard to stamp out abuse.
"Much of the public discussion is about how the church dealt with cases 20 or so years ago," Pell said in a statement released on Sunday. "Critics talk as though earlier inadequacies are still prevalent."
It was unjust and inappropriate for anyone to suggest crimes were being - or had been - committed, without producing evidence, he added.