The BBC will investigate the claims being made against the late presenter Jimmy Savile once a police investigation has been completed, the Corporation’s director-general George Entwistle has promised.

Entwistle told Radio 4’s Today programme that while he was sorry for what had happened he was reluctant to compromise the police’s enquiry which he promised would be given the BBC’s full support.

“It really is important that the police are given the chance to do that here – the BBC does not have the capacity to compel people who no longer work for it, to give interviews. It does not have the capacity to secure evidence forensically. It is vital – and the police asked me specifically on this point – to make sure that we do nothing to compromise a criminal examination of events,” he said.

His comments come in the wake of a string of claims from current and former BBC staff that Savile was part of a sexist culture in broadcasting during the 1970s and 1980s.

Sandi Toksvig, now a regular on Radio 4, has said she was groped “on air, by a famous individual” 30 years ago. The radio and television presenter, who declined to name the celebrity, said when she told other staff what had happened they thought it funny. Liz Kershaw, a former Radio 1 DJ, described last week how she was regularly groped by a colleague.

Entwistle said that the crisis engulfing the BBC over the Savile claims needed to be dealt with “in two phases”, adding: “First the police are given the chance to do everything they have to do – that is the only way justice can possibly be done for the women in question. But once the police assure me that they have done everything they have to do, then, we can take a look properly.”

Entwistle said the police are also looking at the people who worked with Savile and exploring the possibility of bringing criminal charges against them.

“The police have made clear to me is that other people around Jimmy Savile may have known things that should have and would have properly been a matter of criminal inquiry. I can’t prejudge that,” Entwistle said.

Entwistle, whose BBC career began in 1989, said that he had never heard the sexual abuse rumours against Savile: “Jimmy Savile was regarded by a great many people as odd, a bit peculiar and that was something I was aware some people believed.”

He also disclosed that he was told last December that Newsnight had launched an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against Savile. The programme’s reporters spoke to 10 women who claimed they had been abused or had knowledge of abuse at the height of his fame in the 1970s but the story was dropped

Entwistle insisted that the Newsnight editor Peter Rippon was not pressurised to drop the film because of a tribute programme that were commissioned in the wake of Savile’s death last October, as has been rumoured.

“I didn’t know what had become of that investigation,” Entwistle said. “I didn’t know of discoveries, if any, that they had made. A great many people in the country loved Jimmy Savile and wanted to contribute to that programme.”

On Sunday, former director general Mark Thompson said he had “no involvement whatsoever in the decision not to pursue the Newsnight investigation”.

Entwistle described the last week’s revelations as “awful” and expressed his sympathy for Savile’s alleged victims. “The women involved here have gone through something awful and something I deeply regret that they should have to go through and I would like to apologise on behalf of the organisation to each and every one of them for what they’ve had to endure here,” he said.