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Australia Probes Sexual Abuse Of Children By Catholic Clerics

At least 5,000 child abuse victims in Australia are expected to give evidence against the Catholic clergy before a government-appointed commission that began its work on Wednesday, local media reported.

"The task we have is large; the issues are complex. But we are now in a position to actively begin the work of gathering the stories and examining the responses of institutions," the reports quoted Justice Pete McClellan, head of the inquiry commission, as saying.

The commission was announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November in the wake of a string of sexual abuse accusations against priests and claims of a cover-up by the Catholic Church.

McClellan was doubtful about completing the probe by the government set deadline of 2015 because so many people have come forward to give evidence.

The New South Wales state government had opened an inquiry a week ago into allegations of a sexual abuse cover-up by Catholic priests in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney. Victoria state authorities had also begun similar probes into series of priest sex abuse allegations in their state.

Since Gillard announced the federal probe known as the Royal Commission of Inquiry, more than 6,000 people have contacted it in writing or by phone. Her government has offered free legal aid to people who want to testify before the commission prior to public hearings scheduled to begin in September.

Calling the Royal Commission an important "moral moment" for the nation, Gillard said "it is going to require our country to stare some very uncomfortable truths in the face," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio reported.

by RTT Staff Writer

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