MELBOURNE // The head of an Australia-wide commission looking into allegations of child sex abuse in state and religious institutions as well as community groups said more than 5,000 victims are likely to give evidence of their harrowing experiences.
Justice Pete McClellan, who chairs a bench of six commissioners, yesterday started a powerful government-appointed inquiry known in Australia as a royal commission. Witnesses can be compelled to testify and risk imprisonment for lying.
The inquiry was unlikely to achieve its deadline set by the government of late 2015 because so many people wanted to give evidence, he said.
Justice McClellan said he expected at least 5,000 people will want to give evidence, but the actual number could be much higher.
"The task we have is large. The issues are complex," he said.
The prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced the commission in November in the face of a string of sexual abuse accusations against priests and claims of a Roman Catholic Church cover-up.
Since the federal inquiry was announced, more than 6,000 people have contacted staff in writing or by phone.
The government has offered free legal advice to people who want to make submissions to the inquiry before public hearings begin after September.
Ms Gillard said the royal commission was an important "moral moment" for the nation.
"It is going to require our country to stare some very uncomfortable truths in the face," she said.