Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard Monday announced a national inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse after a series of scandals involving paedophile priests.

Gillard made the announcement following claims by a senior policeman that the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales destroyed evidence and silenced investigations.

"There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil," the prime minister said.

"I believe in these circumstances that it is appropriate for there to be a national response through a royal commission."

Gillard had been under growing pressure to establish a national inquiry after the recent allegations as well as an ongoing inquiry in Victoria state, but said the probe would be broader than just the Catholic Church.

"This is not a royal commission targetting any one church," she said.

While the terms of reference have yet to be decided, the commission will cover all religious organisations, as well as those providing state care and other not-for-profit bodies. It will also look at the response of the police.

A senior police investigator last week alleged that the Catholic Church had covered up sexual abuse of children in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, to protect paedophiles and its own reputation.

New South Wales last week announced an investigation into the allegations after Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox claimed the church hindered police, alerted offenders and destroyed evidence.

But Fox had urged a full-scale national inquiry, saying limiting a probe to one region was ineffective, particularly as priests alleged to have committed offences were often moved to different states.

"I've got no doubt that it's got tentacles everywhere," he said Monday. "State boundaries aren't going to stop these sorts of predators from operating."

Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has said he supports the New South Wales inquiry but added that the church had worked hard to stamp out abuse.

"Critics talk as though earlier inadequacies are still prevalent," he said, saying it was unjust for anyone to suggest crimes were being -- or had been -- committed, without producing evidence.

Calls for a national inquiry intensified in September when the Catholic Church in Victoria revealed that at least 620 children had been abused by clergy in that state since the 1930s.

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 apology for child sex abuse by predatory priests, saying he was "deeply sorry" and calling for those guilty of the "evil" to be punished.

Gillard said the more recent allegations were heartbreaking.

"These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject," she told reporters in Canberra.

Gillard said she did not yet know how far back the commission would investigate and in a statement, she commended victims for speaking out.

"They deserve to have their voices heard and their claims investigated."

Gillard said further announcements, including the proposed Commissioner and detailed terms of reference, would be made in coming weeks after discussions with victims' groups, religious leaders and community organisations.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]