CORNWALL, Ont. - The mishandling of sexual abuse allegations by "inept" officials in eastern Ontario sent victims flocking to a crusading police constable determined to unearth a pedophile ring and a conspiracy to cover it up, a public inquiry heard Monday.

Although not the focus of the Cornwall inquiry, the role of former city police officer Perry Dunlop was front and centre as the commission began hearing final submissions after three years of testimony and $40 million spent so far.

While some argued Dunlop "lost his way" while conducting his off-hours investigation in the early 1990s, others told the inquiry he "did the right thing" and is deserving of an apology.

At least two of the parties that presented Monday seemed to agree on one point -- Dunlop would have never gained the status he did if not for the failure of public institutions.

"The local hero and his supporters then become the alternate constabulary, if you will. They become the alternate people to whom one goes to report abuse," lawyer Helen Daley, representing Citizens for Community Renewal, told the inquiry.

Dunlop's efforts to root out a clandestine ring led to wild allegations during a "pedophile smear campaign" that unjustly harmed the reputations of many local authorities, the inquiry heard.

"Const. Dunlop lost his way," Daley said. "He lost his way, but no one individual, no matter how misguided or how committed to a misguided cause, should have caused this result."

The Victims Group, which argued Commissioner Normand Glaude should entertain the idea that "something more sinister" may have been behind the inadequate response of institutions, submitted that Dunlop "filled a hole created by inept, ineffective, incompetent and corrupt public institutions in Cornwall."

"The fact that victims of abuse flocked to disclose their abuse to Dunlop, having never reported to the police or any other agency, should be taken as a scathing indictment of those institutions," the group said.

While rumours abounded for years of high-profile officials, professionals and clergy taking part in bizarre sexual rituals and abusing young people, several separate police investigations found no evidence of such a ring.

One man who told Dunlop he witnessed a clan of pedophiles who wore robes, burned candles and sexually abused young boys during weekend meetings in the 1950s and early '60s recanted his story at the inquiry.

The inquiry's mandate was not to examine the alleged pedophile ring but rather the institutional response to long-standing allegations of sexual abuse.

A provincial police probe, dubbed Project Truth, saw police lay 114 charges against 15 men in the 1990s, but no evidence of an organized, backroom clan was ever found.

Some people in the city steadfastly cling to the belief in the clan and a conspiracy to keep it secret. That belief was able to gain a foothold due in part to rampant homophobia and bungling by local agencies, Citizens for Community Renewal wrote in its submissions.

"For this equation of homosexuality with `pedophilia' to occur in the 21st century and for people to reason that associated gay men were guilty by association is a reflection of the depth of the community's homophobia," the group said.

When confronted with sexual abuse allegations, institutions such as the local diocese and probation office handled such complaints internally instead of taking them to the police, the group said.

Institutions such as the Children's Aid Society, Cornwall Police Service, Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall, and the Ontario Provincial Police are to bear much of the blame, the Victims Group added.

Any attempt by the institutions to place the blame for the allegations and failed prosecutions squarely on Dunlop are merely trying to avoid scrutiny themselves, the group said, saving some of its harshest criticism for the provincial government.

"While the failings of many other institutions infuriated victims and outraged the community, the failed prosecutions that were mishandled and botched by the Ministry of the Attorney General were the final insults," the group said.

Of the 15 men charged as a result of Project Truth, only a bus driver was convicted. Four died before their cases came to trial, four were acquitted, four had the charges against them withdrawn, and two had the charges against them stayed over delays.

Dunlop, who has since moved to British Columbia and no longer works in law enforcement, retains a group of staunch supporters, and the organization Coalition for Action delivered to the inquiry a message from Dunlop's followers.

"He needs an apology from somebody in a high position for what he went through," said lawyer Frank Horn, who was moved nearly to tears in discussing Dunlop's plight.

Some see Dunlop as the victim of a witch hunt, and view criticism of his actions as an attempt to make him a scapegoat for botched investigations and prosecutions.

Dunlop, who has since moved to British Columbia, refused to testify at the inquiry and was jailed for seven months on civil and criminal contempt convictions.

He has been criticized for withholding information from investigators, but Horn said Dunlop was just doing what he thought was right.

"Perry was afraid to just give it to them because he didn't know if they were going to use it or if they were going to lose it," Horn said.

The coalition put forward several recommendations, including whistleblower protection for police officers.