I Hoped It Was Not Church

Jacob van Ruisdael: Landscape with a Church by a Torrent // Public domain

The most controversial Hungarian story in recent memory includes the resignation of Hungary’s President and a former Minister of Justice, a presidential pardon for an accomplice in a pedophilia crime, and, as it turns out, the leader of the Hungarian Reformed Church.

It recently came to light that in 2022 Katalin Novák, the first female President of Hungary and former Minister for Families pardoned a man, who was convicted of coercion while aiding a pedophile in covering up his crimes. The chain reaction that followed this revelation led to the resignation of the President and Judit Varga, former Minister of Justice at the time of the pardon, who was also set to head the EP election list of the governing party, Fidesz-KDNP in 2024.

This news rocked Hungarian media as the war on pedophilia is a flagship issue for the governing party. This story branches off in many different directions, such as Fidesz-KDNP insider and ex-husband of Judit Varga, Péter Magyar going public about the criminal dealings of Viktor Orbán’s inner circle and family, or the public exposure of Antal Rogán “Minister for Propaganda”.

However, there is another angle to this story, one that is still foggy with speculation and insider rumors, and it has to do with the involvement of Zoltán Balog Bishop, Pastoral President of the Synod of the Reformed Church in Hungary, former Minister of Human Resources in the Orbán government. This brings us to the topic of this article.

When the author of these lines first read about the presidential pardon case and the crime itself, I reflexively set out to research the foster home where this series of pedophile crimes have taken place, those which the pardoned man helped cover up. I was trying to find out whether the institution belonged to the church or not. I am sad to admit, that I was hoping it would not be a church foster home, which it was not. It is a state institution.

As to why I hoped to find it is not affiliated with the church, there are two reasons. Firstly, I was raised as a member of the Reformed Church and later went to a Lutheran high school, which meant that Christianity was part of my life throughout my childhood. I made many great memories, some friends, and even held onto a sense of belonging to the Church in my adult life. Members of my congregation worked hard to provide these memories, lessons, and a safe environment for us.

Whenever a pedophile case is linked to a church in Hungary, it sheds a bad light on the entire Church, including those who took part in the tedious work of raising me without ever wronging me. It is a strange paradox – although I hope that all pedophilia associated with the church will come to light, and all those involved will suffer the consequences, I am always sad when I learn of new cases, and this brings us to the second reason why I had hoped that this current case is in no way related to the Church.

Eighteen years of good personal experience with the Church, and as the world opens up, I am learning more and more about abuses linked to Church officials and rampant pedophilia. Consequently, I am overcome with grief that my image of the Church, which I cultivated through my childhood, is gone and I become dubious. I am part of the lucky majority, but maybe these things were happening around me to people I know. So I worry that these cases ruin the image of good people who guided me, both in the eyes of the general public and my own.

While I still do not think the Church and pedophilia go hand in hand and I find it absurd to generalize in such a way, it was the first thing I investigated when I heard about the newest case: Who owns the institution? I hope it was not the Church.

We see the Christian Churches of Hungary losing members rapidly. Last year’s census showed the number of Christians decreased by 25 percent in ten years, with Roman Catholics, the largest Church suffering the greatest losses, over 28 percent. Of course, this is not solely due to sexual abuse, far from it. Colonization of the Church by the state also plays an important role, not to mention generational change, among other potential reasons. The image and prestige of the Church are tarnished, and for valid reasons, such as the government’s actions, or the recent scandal, the subject of this article.

However, we established that the pedophile crime and the coercion took place in a state institution, the offender was the director of the foster home, the pardoned complicit was a teacher, they were not Church officials, the pardon was given by the head of state, so what does the Church have to do with it? This is where Zoltán Balog Bishop comes into the picture.

Zoltán Balog, who is a long-standing member of Fidesz, the governing party, has been a party member since its founding years, and during perhaps the highest point of his political career. He was Minister of Human Resources between 2012 and 2018. In 2018, he retired from politics and switched to the Church, where he has been the head of the Reformed Church as bishop and pastoral chairman of the Reformed Church Synod since 2021. The freshly resigned President Katalin Novák made her start in Balog’s ministry, she was State Secretary under him and Balog is considered to be a mentor of hers, even holding a position in Novák’s presidential cabinet of advisers since her taking office.

When the current pedophile scandal began, all outrage was directed towards Katalin Novák, who granted the pardon. The pardon was given one day before the Papal visit to Hungary in 2023, which already seems like terrible timing. The pardon was kept secret until someone recognized legal documents confirming her intervention in the case of the coercer. First, the government defended Novák’s actions, but later sacrificed her and Judit Varga, who had to sign off on the pardon as Minister of Justice. They made a mistake and they took responsibility. End of story, right?

The issue is that the Orbán regime is a centralized one. The President is elected by Fidesz-KDNP’s 2/3 majority in the parliament. The parliament is often referred to as a “legislation factory” or “button-pushing simulator” for Viktor Orbán and his government. The President is the “signature machine” signing off on virtually any legislation of the Fidesz-KDNP parliament. Novák and her predecessors were seen as faithful tools in the government’s hand. The consensus is that such divisive pardons as the pardon of a man implicated in a pedophile scandal or the pardon of György Budaházy, a far-right terrorist who was pardoned on the same day, would not have been issued without the approval of Viktor Orbán and his inner circle, or even an order.

The government’s media empire made sure Orbán remained uncompromised, and he came out with his plan to save us all from pedophilia by once again amending the constitution so that it does not allow presidential pardon in case of pedophilia. It is highly likely that Orbán gave the green light to free the coercer, potentially ordering Katalin Novák to do so, and then as a send-off gesture, attacked her presidential competencies with an amendment proposal. Regardless, he is currently not in the picture. Zoltán Balog is.

Anonymous sources from the President’s cabinet allegedly told investigative journalists and someone in the largest opposition party, that the pardon was pushed by Zoltán Balog on her mentee, Novák. Balog claims not to know the pardoned offender, but he awarded a medal of honor to the pedophile director, the offender’s boss, and partner in crime. The honor was proposed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the suggestion of Zoltán Balog. It was given in 2016, before the legal case. New informants suggested to journalists that Balog even proposed a meeting between the President and either the coercer or the coercer’s wife to convince her of the pardon. All of these claims were refuted, there is not any evidence to prove them just yet.

However, Zoltán Balog announced in a video that he would stay in office as the leader of the Church. Moreover, in the same video, where he claimed he does not know the pardoned man personally, he admitted he supported his pardon proposal as an advisor. He asked for the forgiveness of the Reformed Church for making a mistake and thanked the Synod for voting to keep him in office.

Since then, it came to light that two of the four Hungarian bishops (Balog is one of them) wanted his resignation, so while support for him was overwhelming in the Synod, the highest-ranking members of the Church likely wanted him to step down, though apparently, they did not partake in the vote. In the past few days, several pastors went public offering part of their honorarium to victims until Balog stays in office. Long-time Calvinist and current opposition MP Tamás Mellár announced he is leaving the Reformed Church. All in all, the case caused waves in and around the Church, and it has only been two days at the time of writing this article.

It is certain that Balog’s presence at the helm of the Hungarian Reformed Church already turned some people away from the Church over the years, considering he was catapulted to this position from Orbán’s HR ministry, with the help of some rule changes. This new scandal just damages the reputation of the Church further and in a rapid fashion.

While I find this unfortunate, I cannot feel bad because the Church is doomed to lose its reputation after the real, insurmountable damage that the pedophile director’s years-long reign has done to its victims. The director was convicted for sexual abuse of at least 10 children between 2004-2016 and another complicit man abused 4 further children. The director was sentenced to only 8 years in prison, which could have easily been over 20 years according to the prosecutor’s office, but the sex offender’s medals of honor (such as the one suggested by Balog) likely played a part in lowering his sentence. He was investigated once in 2011, which yielded no result. The name of the pardoned coercer came up already in relation to the 2011 case, as he already worked under the director at the time and was the appointed patron of a 2011 victim.

The fact that Zoltán Balog remained in office after at least supporting, but potentially pushing the issue of coercive clemency means that something is seriously wrong with the system. Hopefully, by the time the reader reads this article, Balog is off the table, but until then, all the Reformed Church leaders are doing is watching the new pedophile scandals in the news, looking at where they happened and who committed the crime, and hoping that this time it was not the Church.

Written by Márton Schlanger – Researcher at Republikon Institute, Budapest.

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