Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard ordered a federal inquiry Monday into allegations of child sex-abuse in state and religious institutions and community groups following accusations against priests and claims of a Catholic Church coverup. (Penny Bradfield/AP)

Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, has announced a national inquiry to investigate claims of child sex abuse.

The move follows allegations from a senior police officer that the Roman Catholic Church had attempted to conceal evidence of pedophile priests in New South Wales.

A number of senior Labor Party members of parliament and key independents had called on Gillard to deal with the issue on a national scale after the claims were aired on television.

Gillard said the inquiry, known as a Royal Commission, would address “institutional” responses to child abuse and cover not only religious groups but schools, state-care providers and nonprofit bodies.

The abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests has become an increasingly important issue in Australia over the past year. In September, the state of Victoria admitted that more than 600 children had been abused by its priests since the 1930s.

Last week, the government of New South Wales bowed to pressure and announced an inquiry into alleged sex abuse in the Hunter Valley.

Gillard said she had looked at the “nature of material coming into the public domain” and concluded a “national response” was the best way to respond.

“There have been revelations of child abusers being moved from place to place rather than the nature of their abuse and their crimes being dealt with,” Gillard told a press conference in Canberra.

“There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil. I believe in these circumstances that it’s appropriate for there to be a national response through a Royal Commission.”

Gillard said she would not place a limit on how far back the inquiry could go.

“We will be consulting with the organizations that represent the survivors of child abuse, with religious organizations, with state governments, to ensure the terms of reference are right,” she said.

The commission is expected to start its work in the new year.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said the Liberal coalition would support a commission provided it was not limited to the examination of any one institution.

“It must include all organizations, government and non-government, where there is evidence of sexual abuse,” Abbott, one of the highest profile Catholics in Australia, said in a statement.

— Financial Times