Famous Hungarian priest reveals he is survivor of clergy sex abuse

La Croix International [France]

March 2, 2023

By Marc Roscoe Loustau

In run-up to Pope Francis’ visit to Budapest next month, revelations by Father András Hodászd have some asking if an influencer can have any “real” influence on Church

Father András Hodászd, a popular online media personality in Hungary, has told the Telex.hu news portal that a Catholic priest sexually abused him when he was a child. He is the first Hungarian cleric to say publicly that he is a survivor of sexual abuse.

His disclosure on February 14 also caught the nation’s attention because Hodász’s popular YouTube and Instagram channels and social media ministry have earned him the title of “Hungary’s Catholic influencer“. Hodász singled out the Catholic hierarchy for resisting survivors’ demands for an independent investigation of sexual abuse claims and called the Church’s inaction “inexcusable” and “indefensible”.

Before Hodász’s disclosure, his online videos, in which he discussed topics like the joy of faith and the Catholic sacraments, had already put his honesty on display. Hodász, 42, was ordained in 2014. He was appointed parish priest in a Budapest suburb in 2018 when he started posting videos with the help of a video production company. Hodász’s social media channel is called Papifrankó, mashing up the Hungarian word for priest with a slang expression meaning “to tell you what’s up.”

Within a year of founding Papifrankó, Hodász had 30,000 subscribers, a huge number in a country of 10 million. Despite talking about serious theological topics, Hodász has attracted a passionately engaged audience of young viewers. They have responded positively to his deep faith and hipster demeanor. In one of his videos, he trades his cassock for a leather jacket as he preaches road safety astride his Ducati motorcycle. As always, he closes by reminding his viewers – with his trademark wink – “Don’t forget to pray!”

Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest sues alleged victim

Hodász’s revelation comes amid controversy over the Hungarian Catholic Church’s aggressive legal response to survivors’ campaigns for change. Before his disclosure, the face of Hungary’s survivor community was thirty-six-year-old Attila Pető, who has said that as a child in a Budapest suburb in the early 2000s a priest repeatedly subjected him to sexual abuse. Pető immediately reported the abuse to a teacher and other priests. But it took the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest until 2016 to remove the abuser from the priesthood.

Undeterred, Pető began a public campaign for a public apology and an independent investigation of sexual abuse in the Church. Catholic officials stonewalled Pető until finally, in 2019, the archdiocese filed a complaint against Pető for harassment. Budapest police then arrested and interrogated Pető.

International human rights organizations have rallied to Pető’s side and publicized his case. During his trial, Pető was represented by lawyers from the Helsinki Committee, an international human rights organization that set up an office in Hungary in 1989 and offers free legal services to victims of human rights abuses. Pető’s defense lawyers noted during the trial that prosecutors had presented no evidence that their client had disrupted Mass or personally approached Church officials in Budapest’s Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Nevertheless, the court convicted Pető and sentenced him to 15 months of probation, a decision that was reaffirmed this week.

“It’s no accident that victims have not come forward”

After the decision, Pető’s lawyer issued a statement criticizing the Hungarian Church’s decision to prosecute a survivor of clerical abuse who has asked for official recognition of his case.

“Despite all the difficulties,” his lawyer said, “he is still speaking out not only on his own behalf but on behalf of other children who have been harmed.”

Hodász said that the court’s decision to uphold Pető’s conviction led him to speak out now, even though very few others have come forward with stories of abuse.

Hungary has seen little public discussion of sexual abuse in the Church, columnist Flóra Dóra Csatári wrote for the HVG.hu news site. “It’s no accident that it’s been even rarer for victims to come forward publicly,” he said, noting the attitude Church officials have taken toward survivors like Pető.

Father Hodász said that for years survivors had written him privately about their experiences. Before his own disclosure of being abused and the decision against Pető, the priest had offered survivors personal advice. He suggested they seek therapy and bring their cases to the police.

A deeper, society-wide problem in Hungary

Hodász told Telex.hu that the Hungarian Catholic Church has created anonymous procedures to report sexual abuse and has established required trainings for seminarians. He noted that in 2019 Hungarian bishops had issued a general apology to all victims of sexual abuse in the Church.

“Even the old cases are worth reporting,” Hodász told his social media, “especially if the priest is still in ministry, to prevent him from committing the crime again.”

But he said Pető’s conviction revealed a deeper society-wide problem. “This is society’s moment of shame and the low point of our humanity,” he lamented. He also faulted officials for treating survivors with skepticism rather than compassion. He said the Church’s aggressive responses to calls for reform demonstrates that “Hungarian society has to learn how to deal with these situations”.

In the Telex.hu interview, Hodász took the unprecedented step of criticizing Catholic officials’ response to survivors’ calls for action. Hungarian survivors, including Pető, have long asked for a comprehensive and independent investigation into sexual abuse in Hungary’s Catholic Church. The reporter noted that officials in France, Germany, Poland, Australia and elsewhere — “nearly everywhere in the world,” in his words – have conducted such investigations. Most recently, the Catholic Church in Portugal released a report detailing thousands of abuse cases going back decades.

The reputation of Cardinal Péter Erdő is at stake

“This kind of investigation has not taken place here and it’s indefensible,” Hodász said. “It’s inexcusable and it should be done,” he said. Hodász became the first priest to openly question Hungarian Catholic officials’ refusal to allow such an investigation.

He declined to say why the Church in Hungary has refused to investigate abuse cases, but additional revelations about its handling of abusive priests could tarnish the reputation of Hungary’s influential Cardinal Péter Erdő.

The 70-year-old cardinal is rumored to be a candidate to succeed Pope Francis. His conservative views on family and sexuality have won the admiration of Catholic conservatives in Western Europe and North America. He was elevated to his current position by Pope Saint John Paul II, but conservatives point to Erdő’s friendship with Francis to say that he could be a compromise figure at the next conclave.

Erdő has overseen Hungary’s Catholic Church since 2000 and is known for being a capable administrator. When pundits were first discussing Erdő as a candidate for the papacy back in 2013, Vatican analyst John L. Allen praised Erdő in the liberal National Catholic Reporter, calling him “tough enough to get things done.”

But revelations about bureaucratic negligence that put minors in danger could jeopardize that reputation. Erdő has worked closely with the two Church officials who brought the suit against Pető. Pető has said he originally reported the abuse to one of these officials, György Snell, who before his death in 2021 was Erdő’s auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest.Pető said Snell did not believe the accusation and allowed his abuser to remain active for another decade.

Hungarian Catholics divided on the issue

Hodász’s announcement has sparked a heated debate in Hungary’s secular and Church media. The archdiocese issued a simple two-sentence statement, referring to Hodász’s current status after the cardinal granted him a leave of absence last year. “It’s hard that there’s nothing in the statement about the real point of the issue,” Hodász told Telex.

In contrast to the archdiocese’s muted response, other Hungarian priests have attacked Hodász on the Catholic vasarnap.hu website as well as in government-controlled outlets. They have called him a coward, attention-seeker, and a hireling for liberals. Hungarian Church officials insist that they are open to survivors who report abuse, yet priests have offered public doubts that Hodász is telling the truth.

Despite these attacks, Hodász’s disclosure has inspired additional survivors to share their stories of abuse, according to Catholic journalist István Gegény, editor of Szemlélek.hu. The Christian news portal published the original essay in which Hodász disclosed his experience as a survivor. Gégény reported that following the revelation five individuals wrote to the editors to say they had also been victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Some Hungarian Catholics have taken offense at the attempts to discredit Hodász. “I find it outrageous that the Church does not face up to its sins and instead blames the victims,” said Aliz Pocsuvalski, who describes herself as an everyday Catholic who “occasionally goes to Mass”.

But others are skeptical that this outrage will force the Church to change. Catholic historian and ecumenical organizer Tibor Tarcsay noted that there is no institutional structure to harness anger over the way survivors are treated. Tarcsay is a PhD medievalist from Hungary’s prestigious Pázmány Péter Catholic University and an organizer with an ecumenical base community, the Leaven Community. “There is no organized lay movement for transparency,” he noted. “[Laypeople] are as much in denial as the clergy themselves.”

Pető says he is not giving up his fight for a systematic investigation into abuse in the Church. In a recent interview with Hungary’s RTL network, he declared himself a faithful Catholic. “My Church is important to me,” he said. “Still, it’s also important that they communicate appropriately and that they conduct transparent investigations.”

Marc Roscoe Loustau is managing editor of the Journal of Global Catholicism at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts (USA). He is author of Hungarian Catholic Intellectuals in Contemporary Romania: Reforming Apostles (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022). His opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times, America and La Croix International.