CANBERRA (Reuters) - The head of the Catholic Church in Australia on Monday blamed a former culture of silence for the cover-up of child abuse by clergy, making it difficult to know the full extent of abuse, but added that the number of cases had dropped significantly since the church started taking stronger action.
Cardinal George Pell, an advisor to Pope Francis on Vatican reforms, told a parliamentary hearing the church had been slow to address the suffering of victims and again issued an apology.
"I am fully apologetic, and absolutely sorry," said Pell in a tense hearing marked by at times angry questioning over the church's compensation and investigations. Pell was questioned for more than four hours.
Pell said the number of reports of abuse by clergy members peaked in the 1970s and 80s, but had fallen as the church changed its approach.
"The evidence of misbehaving, crimes, has been significantly reduced. I hope the worst is behind us," Pell said, adding 300 people in Victoria had received compensation for abuse.
Child abuse scandals have haunted the Church for more than two decades in Australia, Europe and the United States, with Ireland shutting its embassy to the Vatican in 2011 due to strained relations over the abuse issue.
Pell was giving evidence to a Victorian state inquiry in Melbourne, in relation to his role as Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001 when he implemented protocols for dealing with abuse complaints.
Before a packed public gallery, with many in tears during his testimony, Pell issued another apology to the victims of sexual abuse, and said church leaders in the past had been reluctant to share information about accused priests.
"So I don't think many persons in the leadership of the Catholic church knew what a horrendous, widespread mess we were sitting on," he said.
But since the 1990s, the church was more open in dealing with the issue, and conducts stronger background checks on people joining the clergy, he said.
He also denied acting like "Pontius Pilate" in brushing aside claims and rejected accusations from MPs that his past references to the church being "bled to death" by abuse inquiries referred to concern about compensation payments.
"In my mind it was a secondary consideration, the financial consideration. Whatever the legislature decides is appropriate, we will pay," Pell said.
The parliamentary inquiry has heard child abuse by members of the church was covered up, and that the Catholic church was more concerned with protecting priests than protecting victims.
It has been told that Pell's predecessor as Archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Little, dealt with complaints confidentially, kept no records, and moved accused priests to new parishes where some continued to sexually abuse children.
Little died in 2008. But Pell acknowledged Little covered up the issue and did not discuss it with advisers or other bishops.
"He inherited a situation where there were no protocols, no procedures. And he never spoke to anybody about it. He didn't know how to deal with it," Pell said.
Pell has also been criticised by victim support groups for his decision to accompany an accused pedophile priest into court in 1993, but said the action was not meant as a slight against abuse victims.
The priest, Gerald Ridsdale, was convicted and jailed for 19 years for molesting and raping 40 children between 1961 and 1987. Pell said he was aware of the "terrible crimes" and knew Ridsdale was going to plead guilty, and his decision to walk with him to court was not meant as a sign that he did not support the victims of his crimes.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has set up a rare Royal Commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, into how churches, government bodies and other organizations dealt with child sex abuse cases.
Pell has said the church would fully cooperate with the Royal Commission, which has yet to start hearing evidence and could run for several years.
The Catholic Church is Australia's largest, with 5.4 million followers, representing about one in four Australians.
Additional reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Michael Perry