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Cardinal hits back at smears
Cardinal George Pell. Picture: Paul Miller/AAP

Australia's top Catholic cleric has defended his Church's record on child sexual abuse scandals, claiming the number of cases are a "significant exaggeration" and part of a media smear campaign.

As victims' groups warned the royal commission into child sexual abuse would be swamped by thousands of cases, Cardinal George Pell said that though the Church would co-operate with the commission, he would not allow it to become a scapegoat.

"We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church," Cardinal Pell said. "We object to it being exaggerated. We object to being described as the only cab on the rank."

He questioned whether victims were helped by the "continuing furore in the press" over abuse allegations.

"To what extent are wounds simply opened by the re-running of events which have been reported not only once but many times previously," Cardinal Pell said.

He said he "could not be absolutely sure" the Church was no longer covering up paedophile priests but insisted its processes for handling complaints were adequate.

He said priests should refuse to hear confession from colleagues they suspected of being a paedophile because the Seal of Confession was "inviolable" and admissions made there could not be passed on to authorities.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell was visibly emotional when telling Parliament yesterday that he did not understand how priests who admitted paedophilia in confession were not reported to police.

"I heard Cardinal Pell indicate that the bonds of the confessional remain intact," Mr O'Farrell said.

"And I understand that as a Catholic, not a particularly good Catholic, that that is an important sacrament within my Church. But I struggle to understand that if a priest confesses to another priest that he has been involved in paedophile activities, that that information should not be brought to police."

Opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne, a Catholic, last night said that priests should ignore Church rules and report crimes revealed to them in the confessional.

Broken Rites, a group which represents sexual abuse victims of Catholic clergy, disputed Cardinal Pell's view that claims of child abuse within the Church had been exaggerated.

"The Catholic Church is over-represented in paedophilia," spokesman John McNally said. Though the Catholic Church will be the most high-profile institution examined by the royal commission, it will also investigate other religious organisations, schools, State-run foster homes and not-for-profit groups such as Scouts and sporting bodies.

NSW Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon predicted the royal commission would take 10 years but victim groups hope it will be much shorter.

Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Cathy Kezelman said two years was a reasonable time.

"Survivors have waited decades for this to happen," she said. "But I think it is important that this commission is appropriately resourced so that no one's opportunity to speak is cut short and all witnesses are called."

Dr Kezelman said the commission should look at an apology and compensation for abuse victims and how to provide them with appropriate therapeutic care.

Mr McNally said two to four years for the commission seemed reasonable, saying some paedophiles were alive and should be punished.

But the founder of Bravehearts, Hetty Johnston, said the commission should be allowed to take its time.

"When a child is sexually assaulted, the ramifications are lifelong," she said. "My view is however long it takes, is how long it takes. We need to get this right."

Ms Johnston said two legal firms and two barristers had already contacted her to help victims make a submission.

Ms Gillard ruled out imposing a deadline.

Premier Colin Barnett yesterday tempered his support for the royal commission.

"The record of royal commissions is not great," he said.