Andrew Taylor / Attorney General's Dept. via AP
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the inquiry into sexual abuse a "moral moment" for the country and warned of "very uncomfortable truths."
The Catholic Church in Australia is one of several institutions in the country being investigated by a "royal commission" that is looking into allegations of child sex abuse.
At the start of proceedings on Wednesday, the commission's chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, said it was likely that at least 5,000 people would want to give evidence to the government-backed inquiry. It will investigate allegations of abuse and cover-up that could date back decades. The commission will be focusing on religious organizations, state care providers such as orphanages and not-for-profit groups such as the Girl Guides and Scouts.
Groups representing alleged victims of abuse say the proceedings will finally reveal Australia's history of widespread physical and sexual abuse of vulnerable children.
As tearful campaigners gathered outside the court in Melbourne, McClellan said he wanted to hear the personal accounts of those abused and those who may have been witnesses to crimes.
"For the individuals who have been traumatized, giving an account of their experiences and telling their story can be an important part of their own recovery process," he said. "The bearing of witness by another can break the silence over the abuse that a person experienced, in many cases, years ago."
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the commission in November after allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley region, north of Sydney. A serving police officer called for a national inquiry, alleging the church had protected pedophile priests and tried to stop investigations.
The Catholic Church has said it will cooperate fully with the commission and has formed a "Truth, Justice and Healing Council." Its head, Francis Sullivan, said in a statement that the church was ready and willing to assist. "It is essential that the Commission's process contribute to the healing of the victims, and that institutions develop best-practice processes to address child sexual abuse."
Giving a sense of the scale of the inquiry, McClellan said the commission might not be able to meet its deadline of late 2015. It has already received around 1,200 telephone calls before starting. The allegations are likely to be so harrowing that staff members will be limited in how much testimony they can listen to each day.
Gillard called it a "moral moment" for the country. She told Australia's ABC News Radio, "When I established this royal commission I understood that it was going to require our whole country to stare some very uncomfortable truths in the face."