BREAKING NEWS: PM Gillard announces royal commission into child sex allegations

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a Royal Commission to probe decades of child abuse in churches, schools and foster homes. 

The announcement was made about four months since the suicide of John Pirona, a victim of a notorious Hunter paedophile priest, triggered the Newcastle Herald's Shine the Light campaign.

Ms Gillard said the investigation would address "institutional responses to child abuse" - the instances of abuse as well as the manner in which they have been dealt - by a range of institutions.

The police response should also be examined, she said.

The federal government will consult victims over the next two weeks to define the terms of reference, but said she imagined the investigation would go back decades and potentially take years to complete.

The announcement follows calls by the Greens and several Labor backbenchers, including Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon, for a Royal Commission into abuse in the Catholic Church, after it was alleged by NSW Police Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox that investigations were hindered and in some cases compromised by church officials.

But Ms Gillard said the inquiry would not be limited to the Catholic Church and would include churches, schools, foster homes, state services, police forces, sand the not-for-profit sector.

"The allegations that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse have been heartbreaking," Ms Gillard said.

"These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject. The individuals concerned deserve the most thorough of investigations into the wrongs that have been committed against them."

They deserve to have their voices heard and their claims investigated. I believe a Royal Commission is the best way to do this.

"Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had earlier given his backing to a Royal Commission, provided it was not limited to 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 examination of any one institution. It must include all organisations, government and non-government, where there is evidence of sexual abuse."

Ms Gillard informed Cardinal George Pell of her decision this afternoon.

A proposed commissioner would be submitted soon to Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who has the power to establish the commission.

Ms Gillard said her decision had the backing of her Cabinet. She will speak in coming days to state premiers about co-ordinating with any existing inquiries.

"Discussions will also take place with victims’ groups, religious leaders, and community organisations."

 In separate statements issued late this afternoon ahead of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s press conference, Hunter MP and Chief Government Whip Joel Fitzgibbon and Newcastle MP Sharon Grierson said a national approach was the best way to deal with abuse allegations.

Mr Fitzgibbon said he told Maitland-Newcastle Diocese Bishop William Wright earlier today the Church’s good work would go ‘‘unnoticed and unappreciated’’ until abuse allegations were properly dealt with.

‘‘Of course the royal commission should not be restricted to the Hunter region.  If we’ve only learned one lesson of late it’s that these problems are not confined to any one region or indeed, any one state,’’ Mr Fitzgibbon said.

Newcastle MP Sharon Grierson said ongoing revelations of abuse and cover up in the Hunter and beyond within the Catholic Church ‘‘warrants our utmost attention’’.

‘‘I would favour a royal commission that runs parallel with a reconciliation process to assist with the personal grief and trauma from these deplorable acts and to provide support to those that have experienced incredible harm and continue to experience emotional distress,’’ she said.

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