Fear of scandal prompted the cover-up of child sex abuse allegations within the Catholic Church, Australia's top-ranking Cardinal George Pell admitted Monday.
Pell, speaking at an inquiry by Victoria's parliament into child sex abuse in the state, denied being personally involved in the cover-up of paedophile priests, but said it was clear it happened.
"The primary motivation would have been to respect the reputation of the church," he told the inquiry into the abuse of children by religious and non-government bodies.
"There was a fear of scandal."
Pell, one of eight cardinals selected by Pope Francis to advise him on reforming the Catholic Church's opaque administration, was speaking on the final day of the probe.
It has already heard that about 620 children were criminally abused by Catholic clergy from the 1930s onwards.
Victims, including children as young as seven or eight who were raped by priests, have told of their experiences at the hearing, which comes ahead of a national royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse.
"I am fully apologetic and absolutely sorry," Pell, who is Archbishop of Sydney and formerly archbishop of Melbourne, said at the start of his evidence.
"That is the basis for everything which I'll say now."
Last week Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart told the inquiry the church had been slow to act against paedophile priests and Pell admitted it had dealt with child sex abuse "very imperfectly".
"I would agree that we've been slow to address the anguish of the victims and dealt with it very imperfectly," he said.
The Catholic Church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, has endured a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses by priests.
Pell said the church had been aware of the emerging issue of sex abuse from the late 1980s, but had failed to comprehend the scale of the problem.
"If we'd been gossips, which we weren't... we would have realised earlier just how widespread this business was," he said.
"I don't think many, if any, persons in the leadership of the Catholic Church knew what a horrendous widespread mess we were sitting on."
Pell said the fact that paedophile priests had been moved to other parishes had had disastrous consequences.
"There's no doubt about it that lives have been blighted," he said. "There's no doubt about it that these crimes have contributed to too many suicides."
As well as the Victoria and national investigations, there is also a special commission of inquiry in New South Wales into similar allegations of abuse in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney.