THE Bishop of Durham has called for a public inquiry into abuse as peers expressed anger and disgust over the scale of Jimmy Savile's sexual abuse in hospitals across the country.

The Right Reverend Paul Butler said cases like Savile and Rochdale highlighted that "we have a long history of abuse within institutions" including schools, care homes and churches.

"If we don't face up to the past failures we will never really improve the future," he told the Lords.

"Powerful people have engaged in serious abuse and worked with each other to create opportunities and share their vices and victims."

He said an independent inquiry should examine institutionally based abuse going back up to the past 50 years.

It would take time and be costly. But the "true cost of child abuse and abuse of adults at risk is far higher than any of us have ever been prepared to acknowledge.

"Justice, fairness and the very health of our society demands we no longer hide away from this dark part of our story.

"We need an independent public inquiry and we need it very soon," the Bishop added in a debate on preventing abuse of children and vulnerable adults.

But independent crossbencher Baroness Howarth of Breckland, former chief executive of ChildLine, rejected the call for a public inquiry.

She warned that it would be very expensive and if there was any "money going in the years of austerity", it should go into frontline preventive work.

Lady Howarth said there were already a "plethora of reports" on the issue and it was important to "follow through" on the work already done.

Opening the debate, Liberal Democrat Baroness Walmsley said recent high-profile cases and that of Savile had shown there were those who had got away for years with abusing children and vulnerable adults.

She called for a "massive culture change" to tackle failure to report abuse or act on reports and failure of professionals to communicate with each other.

Lady Walmsley said the most shocking revelation about Savile was the number of victims who had reported what happened at the time to someone in their institution, only to be ignored.

"We need mandatory reporting, which would be a new offence for those in a position of caring, failing to report knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse in a regulated activity," she said.

Former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Lord Paddick (Lib Dem) stressed the importance of the police believing those who report abuse.

"We have seen in the case of Jimmy Savile how vulnerable victims were either not believed or did not feel able to report the abuse until after the perpetrator was dead."

Lord Paddick said: "Children and vulnerable adults who have suffered abuse must be believed, cared for and protected at all costs.

"Whenever possible, perpetrators must be brought to justice but not at any cost. Above all, inability to prosecute must never be an excuse for failing victims of abuse."

Independent crossbencher Lord Bichard, who chaired a child protection inquiry after the Soham murders, said the sexual abuse exposed by the Savile case "beggars belief" because of he failure of the institutions involved to prevent it.

He said everyone had to continue the search for answers rather than accept these things as inevitable.

Lord Bichard warned that the current arrangements for barring certain people from working with children were as "confusing as ever" and "some inappropriate people will slip through the net".

He called for a review of the issue of mandatory reporting to provide an examination of the pros and cons before coming to a decision and the setting up of a small "centre of excellence" on child protection to learn from the lessons of the past.

"Abuse of children and vulnerable adults isn't historical," Lord Bichard said. "It isn't reducing. It is widespread. It is a blot on our claim to be a civilised society."

Winding up for Labour, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara said the nation was confronted with too many shocking cases hitting the headlines.

And he warned these were just a "tiny fraction" of the abuse and neglect taking place day after day.

Lord Stevenson called for stronger regulation and an action plan to build on previous reports commissioned on tackling abuse.

"We don't need Jimmy Savile and the reports that have come out today and will be coming out over the next few months to remind us we need to do more. We need to discover more and work harder at prevention," he said.

For the Government, Baroness Northover said Savile's "reign of abuse" showed how vigilant the authorities must be to ensure abuse was prevented and tackled.

"In all respects, we must counter abuse through culture change, or legislation, regulation and training."

She said mandatory reporting was one of a number of possible future approaches the Government was considering.

"The Government is reviewing the specific case for mandatory reporting in regulated activity and the Home Office is looking at options to strengthen the system.

"We will continue to examine the evidence on this both nationally and internationally."