SYDNEY — A government commission investigating the sexual abuse of children in Australia found Friday that the nation was gripped by an epidemic dating back decades, with tens of thousands of children sexually abused in schools, religious organizations, and other institutions.
The royal commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, made 189 recommendations, among them the establishment of a new National Office for Child Safety and penalties for those who suspect abuse and fail to alert the police, including priests who hear about abuse in confessionals.
The panel also urged Australia’s Roman Catholic leadership to press Rome to end mandatory celibacy for priests.
“Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions,” said the report, which was particularly critical of Catholic organizations. “We will never know the true number. Whatever the number, it is a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.”
The Vatican called the report ‘‘thorough’’ and said it deserves to be ‘‘studied seriously,’’ the Associated Press reported. It said it was committed to helping Australian victims of pedophile priests find healing and justice.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the commission had exposed “a national tragedy.”
The commission’s chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, said the panel heard from more than 1,000 witnesses over nearly 15 months in discovering the magnitude of the abuse.
“It is not a case of a few rotten apples,” the report said. “Society’s major institutions have seriously failed. In many cases those failings have been exacerbated by a manifestly inadequate response to the abused person.’’
“The problems have been so widespread, and the nature of the abuse so heinous, that it is difficult to comprehend,” it added.
Australia created the commission in 2012 to investigate decades of sexual abuse in religious institutions, schools, and other establishments — the only country in the world so far to initiate such a sweeping government-led inquiry.
More than 4,000 institutions have been implicated in abuse allegations, the commission found.
Australian government investigators found 4,444 victims of abuse and at least 1,880 suspected abusers from 1980 to 2015, most of them Catholic priests and religious brothers. The report released Friday said 62 percent of the survivors who had told the commission they had been abused in religious institutions had been abused in a Catholic facility.
Responding to the findings, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne offered “our unconditional apology for this suffering and a commitment to ensuring justice for those affected.”
He said many of the panel’s recommendations would have a significant effect on the way the Catholic Church operates in Australia.
“Central to this Royal Commission is the painful truth that so many children were abused, trust was destroyed, and innocence lost,” the archbishop said. “They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters — this should never have happened. As a bishop I express my deepest sorrow.”
The inquiry, which cost the Australian government more than $280 million, was unmatched in its scope in examining a scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic hierarchy worldwide.
“Our inquiry revealed numerous cases where leaders of religious institutions knew about allegations of child sexual abuse but failed to take effective action, often with catastrophic consequences for children,” the report said.
The most damaging revelations centered on scandals in towns like Ballarat, the hometown of Cardinal George Pell, who this year became the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses.
In Ballarat, a police officer investigated a pedophile ring at local Catholic schools and said up to 30 victims had since killed themselves.
The charges brought in June against Pell, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers, followed years of criticism that he had at best overlooked, and at worst covered up, the widespread abuse of children by clergymen in Australia.
In addition to calling for the establishment of a National Office for Child Safety, the commission urged passage of laws that would penalize those who failed to alert the police if they suspected an adult “was sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child.”
Delving into sensitive territory for the Catholic Church, the report also recommended that clergy be required to report suspected abuse that they had heard about during confession. Church officials, however, argue that confidentiality is integral to the ritual, and Hart took issue with the proposal.
“I would feel terribly conflicted, and I would try even harder to get that person outside confessional, but I cannot break the seal,” he said, referring to the seal of absolute secrecy around what is said in the confessional. “The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication, being cast out of the church, so it’s a real, serious, spiritual matter,” he added.
The panel also recommended that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference pressure the church’s leadership in Rome to “consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy,” saying that mandatory celibacy for priests contributed to child abuse.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard, who had called for the establishment of the royal commission, said previous efforts to conduct such an inquiry were resisted, despite efforts by whistle-blowers to expose the abuses.
She said that in formulating the inquiry, she found that previous such efforts hadn’t given survivors the sense of healing or closure they sought.
“I knew that it would be difficult to get it right, and I was very concerned that if we created an inquiry that didn’t work well it would end up retraumatizing survivors,” Gillard said.