Cardinal George Pell has told a sex abuse inquiry the church has made progress but victims say its leaders still just "don't get it".
Cardinal Pell admitted the fear of scandal led to cover-up in the church but said its response had borne "very significant fruit".
He opened and closed his submission to Victoria's parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse with an apology, saying he was "absolutely sorry".
Australia's most senior Catholic said the church should have been called earlier to deal with searing criticism that kicked off the inquiry.
"Because these charges were unanswered, many people in the public think not only were there many mistakes made a long time ago but there's been no progress at all over the last 20 years.
"I don't think that's borne out by the facts of the case but that's for people to judge."
Many victims were not satisfied.
Some said they felt the apology was insincere and that Cardinal Pell had diverted blame to others.
There were calls for him to resign.
Geelong priest Father Kevin Dillon sat with several victims at the inquiry and said they were unimpressed by Cardinal Pell's statements.
"They have been searching for a degree of compassion, understanding and support - and almost universally to the victims I have spoken to - they have been disappointed," he said.
Fr Dillon said church officials "still don't get it" and have failed to introduce practical measures that meet the needs of victims.
"They need restitution, not just financially, but in terms of getting their lives back," Fr Dillon said.
Anthony Foster, whose two daughters were raped by Melbourne priest Kevin O'Donnell, said he was offended by Cardinal Pell's claim he was for victims because they were not supported by his actions.
He said the church needed to change and become a public entity so it can be sued.
Stephen Woods, who was abused by a paedophile priest, was dumbfounded by Cardinal Pell's claim that he acted in the best interests of victims.
"The little care for the victims that he showed, showed that they still don't get it," Mr Woods told reporters.
He called for Cardinal Pell to resign.
"He needs to resign. His era is finished," Mr Woods said.