Scott Morrison’s apology follows the release of last year’s report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse after a four-year inquest.
Mr Morrison acknowledged that the nation had failed to protect the victims from “evil dark” crimes committed over decades.
“This was done by Australians to Australians, enemies in our midst, enemies in our midst,” he told a parliamentary chamber in Canberra.
“As a nation, we failed them, we forsook them, and that will always be our shame. We say sorry.”
The inquest revealed shocking evidence from more than 17,000 survivors and heard allegations against government, church and private institutions, as well as prominent individuals.
It also heard evidence from leaders such as Vatican Cardinal George Pell, who is charged with committing historical sex abuses himself and was accused of failing to protect children.
Mr Morrison said nothing could be done to right the wrongs inflicted on children.
“Even after a comprehensive royal commission, which finally enabled the voices to be heard and the silence to be broken, we will all continue to struggle,” he said.
“So today, we gather in this chamber in humility, not just as representatives of the people of this country, but as fathers, as mothers, as siblings, friends, workmates and, in some cases, indeed, as victims and survivors.”
Mr Morrison’s speech came with the announcement of government plans to create a museum and research centre to raise awareness and understanding of the impacts of child sexual abuse, and to ensure Australia does not forget the horrors victims have suffered.
The government will also commit to reporting every year for the next five years on the progress of the royal commission’s recommendations.
It has already accepted 104 of the commission’s 122 recommendations, including a redress payments programme, with the other 18 still under examination.
While many survivors and campaigners went to Canberra to hear the apology, many are still calling for far more work to be done to address the history of abuse.
Care Leavers Australia Network chief executive Leonie Sheedy called on the government to remove a charity tax exemption from institutions that are still deciding whether to opt in to the national redress scheme for victims.
She says she has never healed from being abused.
“You can learn to live with it, but it never goes away. It will be with me and all care leavers until the day that they put the lid on the coffin,” Ms Sheedy told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Hetty Johnson, founder of the Bravehearts support group for victims, said survivors had made it clear they wanted all the royal commission’s recommendations fully implemented.
“There is a lot of anger in the community,” she told Sky News Australia.
“They’ve made it very clear they want these recommendations implemented as they were intended and it’s yet to see whether the government will actually do that.”