SYDNEY — Australian bishops have welcomed the report by the Victorian state inquiry into clerical sexual abuse, which recommended sweeping changes in the wake of what one archbishop described as more than 25 years of "inexcusable failures" by the church.

Those who would conceal, fail to report, or knowingly expose a child to abuse, including priests and religious leaders, would face imprisonment under recommendations by the Victorian parliamentary committee.

Under current law, only those who benefit from the concealment of crime can be prosecuted. The state has six months to respond.

The report, Betrayal of Trust, also recommended overturning statutes of limitations in civil suits, improving prevention systems, requiring strict compliance audits and establishing alternative avenues of justice for victims, because it said systems set up by churches were not truly independent.

The state Inquiry Into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Nongovernment Organizations received 578 submissions, held 162 hearings, and referred more than 130 fresh claims of abuse to police.

It criticized the Melbourne Response, the archdiocesan protocol for managing allegations of sexual abuse, as "conceptually flawed" and "fraught with difficulty." The protocol was established in 1996 by Cardinal George Pell, who was archbishop of Melbourne at the time and, according to the report, was plagued early on by "problems and victim dissatisfaction."

Compensation was arbitrary, and church authorities were under no legal obligation to report criminal child abuse.

The report also criticized as inadequate Towards Healing, the church's sexual abuse protocol for the rest of Australia.

Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, admitted the church was "far too slow to address the abuse, or even to accept that it was taking place."

The Victorian report documents "the worst betrayal of trust in my lifetime in the Catholic Church," he said. "It also sets out inexcusable failures in the church's response to that abuse."

Archbishop Hart said the church would "cooperate with the law, but cannot set aside the provisions of the confessional."

The report said no one could accurately count the number of victims of criminal child abuse in nongovernmental organizations, but said it could reasonably estimate there had been several thousand of such victims in Victoria alone.

It said that, specifically looking at the Catholic Church, Salvation Army and Anglican diocese in the state, committee members heard that "children subjected to criminal abuse have been less likely to be adequately protected in religious organizations than in any other group in society."

"There are many reasons for this, including the policy of forgiveness, the self-protection of many religious organizations and their trusted, revered status in society," it said.

"In regard to the Catholic Church specifically, the committee found that, rather than being instrumental in exposing the criminal abuse of children and the extent of the problem, senior leaders of the church:

-- Trivialized the problem.

-- Contributed to abuse not being disclosed or not being responded to at all prior to the 1990s.

-- Ensured that the Victorian community remained uninformed of the abuse.

-- Ensured that perpetrators were not held accountable, with the tragic result being that children continued to be abused by some religious personnel when it could have been avoided."

Cardinal Pell, now archbishop of Sydney, said the report "offers valuable recommendations to ensure that crimes are reported, children and vulnerable people are better protected, and those who have been hurt can more easily seek justice."

He also supported the proposal of a national or state plan for institutions to compensate victims of abuse. He said the recommendations on civil litigation and incorporation were "complex matters" and required further discussion.

"As I said to the committee in evidence, 'I am totally committed to improving the situation; I know the Holy Father is, too. I know there are significant persons in the community and in the church who believe, rightly, that we have failed ... we have done quite a deal. I commit myself to doing whatever further is required and appropriate so that we can bring a bit more peace.' I repeat these words today and continue to stand by them," the cardinal said after the report's release.

Archbishop Hart apologized to victims and their families and said he hoped the inquiry and its recommendations would bring about healing.

"We also hope they will enhance the care of victims and their families, and strengthen the preventative measures now in place."

In the wake of the report, the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, established by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia to oversee the church's engagement with the royal commission, called for a national compensation scheme for victims of child sexual abuse.

The council announced it would write to commonwealth, state and territory attorneys-general requesting a no-cap fund for payouts to victims.

"It is now time for governments and other organizations to take a national approach to providing compensation and justice for the victims of child sexual abuse," said Francis Sullivan, council CEO.

"The fact the Victorian inquiry has called for a state scheme and the possibility that the royal commission may recommend a national scheme should be enough for all governments to now start considering adopting a national approach to all key issues associated with child sexual abuse and child protection," he said.