Prime Minister Julia Gillard says a six-member royal commission will ensure the voices of child sexual abuse victims are heard and adults no longer turn a blind eye to such shocking crimes.

Ms Gillard on Friday announced the appointment of NSW Supreme Court judge Peter McClellan to head the inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

The commission will be expected to provide an interim report by the end of June 2014 and will wind up in December 2015.

However, child advocates say it could take much longer given the complexity of the problem.

"Today is the day that we start to create a future where people who perpetrate child sexual abuse cannot hide in institutions, where we work together to find a better way of keeping our children safe," Ms Gillard said.

The prime minister said the trauma of abuse over many decades had compounded a sense among victims that "their nation doesn't understand or doesn't care about what they've suffered".

"To those survivors of child sex abuse, today we are able to say we want your voice to be heard, even if you've felt for all of your life that no one's listened to you, that no one has taken you seriously, that no one has really cared," Ms Gillard said.

Assisting Justice McClellan will be former Queensland police commissioner Bob Atkinson, former Victorian president of the Children's Court Justice Jennifer Coate, Productivity Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald, consultant psychiatrist Professor Helen Milroy and former West Australian senator Andrew Murray.

Mr Murray was sent from Britain to Southern Rhodesia at age four and has championed the cause of children in institutions through inquiries and advocacy groups.

He was sent to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by the Fairbridge organisation that operated child migration schemes for underprivileged British children.

Parents were persuaded to sign over legal guardianship of their children on the promise of a better life in other commonwealth countries.

The commissioners will hold a telephone hook-up on Monday, with their first face-to-face meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

The commission will look at victim redress measures, child protection systems and flaws in the reporting of abuse as well as canvass the experiences of authorities and victims.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the government planned to introduce legislation to parliament in February to allow the six commissioners to hear evidence separately.

Under existing laws, all commissioners would have to be present to hear evidence which would considerably slow down the process.

Ms Roxon said the public should not expect the commission to be a police force or prosecuting body.

The terms of reference give the commission the ability to set up a special investigative unit to help look into past cases, but the decision to do so will be up to the commissioners.

Shadow attorney-general George Brandis said the terms were "sufficiently comprehensive" and the inquiry would be an "extremely difficult and emotionally demanding task" for the commissioners.

Catholic church spokesman Francis Sullivan said the church would co-operate.

"It is essential that the commission's process contribute to the healing of the victims, and that institutions develop best-practice processes to address child sexual abuse," he said.

"The church stands ready and willing to assist."

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne said the inquiry should have mentioned indigenous communities, which had specific issues and cultural sensitivities.

Child victim group Bravehearts director Hetty Johnston said it likely the commission would need more time to complete its report but it would have long-term benefits.

"This generation and the next, and at least five generations of Australians will benefit from this," she said.