The Catholic Church in one Australian state has revealed that at least 620 children have been abused by its clergy since the 1930s, sparking a fresh call Saturday for an independent inquiry into sex abuse.
The Catholic Church in Victoria revealed the number in a submission to a state parliamentary hearing on Friday but said the instances of abuse reported had fallen dramatically from the "appalling" numbers of the 1960s and 1970s.
"It is shameful and shocking that this abuse, with its dramatic impact on those who were abused and their families, was committed by Catholic priests, religious and church workers," Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart said.
Last year Pope Benedict XVI told Australian bishops that their work had been made more difficult by the clerical sex abuse scandal which has rocked the church as he exhorted them to "repair the errors of the past with honesty".
The full submission was not released publicly but the church said most of the 620 criminal abuse claims it had upheld over the last 16 years related to incidents 30 to 80 years ago, with very few related to abuse that has taken place since 1990.
Hart said the church had taken steps to redress the issue, including a programme implemented in the 1990s involving an independent investigation, an ongoing programme of counselling and support, and compensation.
"This submission shows how the church of today is committed to facing up to the truth and to not disguising, diminishing or avoiding the actions of those who have betrayed a sacred trust," he said.
"We acknowledge the suffering and trauma endured by children who have been in the Church's care, and the effect on their families. We renew our apology to them," he said in a statement in which he spoke for church leaders in Victoria.
But victims' supporters say the number of children abused was likely much higher than that confirmed by the church in its own inquiries.
Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were raped by their parish priest from the mid-1980s, said the church had had decades to address the issue but had only revealed the figure to the Victorian inquiry on Friday.
"It's only been victims coming out and going to the police that has stopped all of this," she told the ABC.
"The church has never lifted a finger to stop their paedophile priests," added Foster, who said one of her daughters had ultimately taken her own life.
President of the Law Institute of Victoria, Michael Holcroft, said there was a need for more independent investigations.
"Obviously there's a public perception that the church investigating the church is Caesar judging Caesar and I think that the community is now looking for somebody external, someone independent to get to the bottom of what's obviously been a big problem for a long, long time," he told the ABC.
The Victorian state government announced the inquiry into the handling of child abuse cases by religious and non-government bodies after the suicides of dozens of people abused by clergy.
The church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, has endured a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Sydney in 2008 he met victims and offered a historic full apology for child sex abuse by predatory priests, saying he was "deeply sorry" and calling for those guilty of the "evil" to be punished.