CANBERRA (Reuters) - The head of Australia's powerful Catholic Church acknowledged the "shame" of child sex abuse among the clergy and welcomed a sweeping inquiry on Tuesday, but also warned that the extent of the problem within his church had been exaggerated.
On Monday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard ordered a rare Royal Commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, into how churches, government bodies and other organizations have dealt with possibly thousands of child sex abuse claims.
George Pell, Australia's only cardinal, said the Church would cooperate fully with the new inquiry, which can compel witnesses to give evidence and produce documents, and that he did not believe the Catholic church was the main perpetrator.
"We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic church. We object to it being exaggerated, we object to it being described as 'the only cab on the rank'," said Pell, who is also Archbishop of Sydney.
"We acknowledge, with shame, the extent of the problem and I want to assure you that we have been serious in attempting to eradicate it and deal with it," he told reporters in Sydney.
Gillard called the inquiry in the face of mounting political pressure after explosive reports that orders within the Catholic Church had covered up abuse claims and hindered police inquires over several decades in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia's two most populous states.
Pell denied the Catholic Church actively covered up any child abuse and said comprehensive procedures introduced in 1992 ensured full cooperation with police and swift action against alleged abusers.
"We will cooperate fully. We have nothing we want to hide," Pell said.
Pell also said priests should refuse to hear confessions from suspected child abusers to ensure priests were not then bound by the confidentiality of the confessional.
"If the priest knows beforehand about such a situation, the priest should refuse to hear the confession, that would be my advice. I would never hear the confession of a priest who was suspected of such a thing," he said.
Late on Monday, a former police officer who investigated child abuse for decades, told Australian television the Royal Commission should examine aspects of the Catholic Church such as confession.
Former police officer Peter Fox sparked a nationwide outcry last week when he alleged the Catholic church had covered up abuse by priests in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney. His allegations ultimately led to the new inquiry being called.
Gillard has yet to announce who will preside over it, or its terms of reference. She hopes to finalize the details by the end of this year but has refused to set a time limit on the Royal Commission, which could run for several years.
The Catholic Church is Australia's largest, with 5.4 million followers, representing about one in four Australians.
Editing by Paul Tait