Amid Government Abuse Scandal, Hungarian Catholics Defend Church Record On Tackling Abuse

OSV News [Huntington IN]

March 7, 2024

By Jonathan Luxmoore

Prominent Hungarian Catholics have defended their church’s record on tackling sexual crimes by clergy after a top-level government abuse scandal led to the appointment of a new national president of the country.

“This sin exists here, as everywhere in the world — we don’t see any specific pattern which would distinguish Hungary from other countries,” said Péter Zachar, co-president of the 3,000-member ecumenical Association of Christian Intellectuals, or KÉSZ.

“But our church is doing a lot in this area — with a centralized system initiated from the Vatican, careful handling of reports, and full cooperation with the investigating authorities according to canonical and local standards,” he said.

The lay Catholic made his comments as Tamás Sulyok, Hungary’s Constitutional Court chairman, assumed office as president after being elected by members of parliament Feb. 26 to replace Katalin Novák, who resigned for pardoning a man convicted in a child abuse case.

In an OSV News interview, Zachar said the controversy had shown Hungary boasted an “extremely strong and active media,” competently reporting on “fundamentally important social issues.” The association is headed by a Greek Catholic priest, Father Ákos Makláry.

“It’s a welcome development that new legislation and stronger protection systems can now be created by social consensus,” said Zachar, a history professor at Hungary’s National University of Public Service and chairman of the Foundation for Hungarian Evangelization.

“But the Catholic Church has been the first to act, setting an authoritative model for prevention, reporting and investigation which governmental institutions have looked to,” he added.

Novák, Hungary’s first female head of state, resigned and apologized in a Feb. 10 TV address, after an online news site, 444.Hu, revealed she had pardoned a senior staffer at a children’s home in Bicske in April 2023 after he was convicted of covering up abuse.

Hungary’s former justice minister, Judit Varga, who endorsed the pardon, also stepped down Feb. 10, after preparing to lead the campaign by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in the June 6-9 European Parliament elections.

The head of Hungary’s Calvinist Reformed Church, Bishop Zoltán Balog, a former Fidesz government minister, also quit under pressure Feb. 16 after being implicated in the scandal, but in his resignation speech, he accused opposition politicians of staging a “political witch hunt.”

Hungarian media accused Novák of using the pope’s April 28-30, 2023, Hungarian pilgrimage as pretext for the pardon.

However, Zoltán Kovács, state secretary for public diplomacy, rejected any involvement by Pope Francis or the Vatican, confirming Hungarian presidents could “grant pardons on special occasions.”

The Hungarian bishops’ press office told OSV News Feb. 29 church leaders had heard from the media about the presidential pardon, which it said was not done in consultation “with the Apostolic See, Holy Father or Catholic Church.”

The office added that the church’s Catholic Pedagogical Institute was running a program to ensure all Catholic schools and communities operated child protection teams with “customized strategies and protocols,” and said the bishops’ conference was committed to ensuring “the next generations can grow up in a secure environment.”

“If any cases come to their attention, Hungarian Catholic organizations, in collaboration with the Vatican, conduct investigations based on stringent rules,” the press office added. “The Hungarian church’s position is entirely clear: Abuse and mistreatment of children are serious sins and crimes, regardless of where they occur.”

Hungary’s Catholic Church, traditionally made up of over 60% of the population of 10 million, has faced accusations that it is subservient to Orban, who has headed Fidesz since 1993 and served as head of government for 18 years, attracting domestic and international criticism for close ties with Russia and alleged high-handed governance.

Hungary’s opposition Democratic Coalition has demanded a government committee to investigate alleged abuse in the Catholic Church, and to expose inaction and “systemic shortcomings” by church leaders.

However, Zachar, the KÉSZ co-president, said only a “small proportion of abuses” had happened in ecclesiastical settings, making it unfair to focus attention on the Catholic Church.

“Cases within the family, in educational and training institutions, in sporting and arts education shouldn’t be kept quiet — we must learn from the church’s experience,” said Zachar, whose association, founded in 1989, includes Catholics and Protestants and has 70 groups nationwide.

“The church has provided manuals and practical procedures, becoming a flagship in child protection. Its documents make clear that prevention, information and care should form a single comprehensive package,” he said.

Hungary’s Catholic bishops issued anti-abuse guidelines in 2014, and set up a system for reporting abuse in 2019 after a papal motu proprio, “Vos Estis Lux Mundi.”

Speaking in mid-February, Orban, a non-practicing Calvinist, said he would amend Hungary’s 2011 constitution to bar convicted child abusers from receiving pardons in the future.

In a March 4 communique, Hungary’s Reformed Church backed premier Orban’s plans to tighten anti-abuse rules, and said “psychological fitness tests” were obligatory for all church staffers working with children.

Media reports said the resignations of senior figures linked to the prime minister could undermine his long-standing claims to be defending Christian values in Europe and protecting Hungarian children from gender ideology and sexual deviancy.

Zachar denied this, saying that opposition attempts to “make political capital” by implicating Orban in the pardon scandal had not been “backed by evidence.”

“Those responsible didn’t try to explain away or cover up their wrong decisions — they accepted the necessary consequences, and if this credibility is carried forward, the current crisis of confidence could provide an opportunity to avoid such mistakes in future,” the KÉSZ co-president told OSV News.

In a Feb. 19 statement, the Association of Christian Intellectuals praised Novák and Reformed Bishop Balog for “showing moral and political responsibility by resigning.”

Zachar told OSV News he hoped the new president will “build a national consensus on rights and values.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.