MELBOURNE, Australia - 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 chairs a bench of six commissioners who on Wednesday 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.
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," McClellan said.
"But we are now in a position to actively begin the work of gathering the stories and examining the responses of institutions," he added.
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 coverup.
The New South Wales state government had ordered an inquiry a week earlier into allegations of a sexual abuse coverup by Catholic priests in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney. Victoria state officials had also begun investigating a separate series of priest sex abuse allegations in their state.
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.
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 told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.