Third Ally of Hungary’s Prime Minister Resigns Over Child Abuse Pardon Scandal

  • February 17, 2024

A snowballing scandal in Hungary over the pardoning of a man convicted of covering up pedophilia in a children’s home forced the third resignation in a week on Friday of an important political ally of the country’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban.

The departure of Zoltan Balog, a former government minister, from the leadership of the Hungarian Reformed Church followed the resignations last weekend of Hungary’s president, Katalin Novak, and Judit Varga, a former Justice minister and a leading figure in Fidesz, Mr. Orban’s conservative governing party.

All three have been at the forefront of Mr. Orban’s efforts to present Hungary as a bastion of family values, committed to fending off what Fidesz reviles as “woke globalists” intent on undermining Christianity and Hungarian sovereignty through L.G.B.T.Q. “propaganda” imported from the outside.

Hungary’s carefully nurtured image as a safe zone for traditional values, however, suffered a damaging blow this month from revelations that a man who was pardoned last year had been convicted of covering up sexual abuse by the director of a state-run children’s home in Bicske, near Mr. Orban’s home village. The crime for which the man was convicted was not made public at the time of his pardon.

Mr. Orban’s party, which has won four elections in a row, does not face another general election in Hungary until 2026, and so it is securely in power. But the scandal has severely embarrassed the government — and invigorated the prime minister’s opponents — ahead of June elections for the European Parliament, which Mr. Orban had hoped would help establish him as the leader of a pan-European conservative movement. Ms. Varga, the former Justice minister, had, before her resignation, been designated by Fidesz to lead its campaign for the European elections.

That a man convicted of pressuring victims to retract complaints of sexual abuse had been pardoned stirred widespread outrage, including among supporters of Fidesz.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Budapest, the Hungarian capital, on Friday to voice their anger over the affair and government hypocrisy. It was the biggest protest in the city for years.

The fight against pedophilia, which Hungary’s 2021 child protection law linked to restrictions on displays of gay and transgender people, has been at the center of Mr. Orban’s political messaging for years. In November, his culture minister fired the director of the Hungarian National Museum for hosting a photo exhibition that included a handful of images of men dressed in women’s clothing.

Pressure on Mr. Balog to resign as president of the Reformed Church synod has been building steadily since the independent Hungarian news portal Direkt36 reported that he had lobbied the president to pardon the convicted deputy director of the children’s home. Mr. Balog earlier this week acknowledged he had supported a pardon petition, but denied that he had submitted it and vowed not to resign.

On Friday, he announced that he was resigning for the sake of the church. “Forgive me for not being alert and careful enough and for not seeing the dangers lurking in this pardon case for our country, our nation, our church, and our president,” he told the synod of the Reformed Church.

Mr. Balog, an influential Calvinist bishop who has been close to Mr. Orban for decades, played a significant role in Fidesz’s evolution into a deeply conservative and increasingly authoritarian political force from an anti-communist movement committed to tolerance and dominated by liberals in the late 1980s. The party now espouses views more in tune with those of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia than mainstream European opinion.

The furor is unlikely to loosen Mr. Orban’s tight grip on power, but it has badly damaged his ability to control public opinion through a sprawling media machine controlled by and unswervingly loyal to Fidesz.

Magyar Nemzet, a particularly zealous, Fidesz-controlled media outlet, has largely ignored the pedophilia pardon scandal. It focused on Friday on attacking the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman, who is gay and a favorite punching bag for government loyalists.

Mr. Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, insisted on Friday that the prime minister had not known about the pardoned man’s complicity in the pedophilia case and had only learned about it from the press.

Hungary’s self-declared role as a rampart against liberal values — and also foreign migrants — has made the small Eastern European country an unlikely beacon for evangelical Christians and hard-right Republicans, many of whom travel from the United States to Budapest each year for a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference. Last year’s gathering, held in a Budapest conference hall, featured a sign declaring the venue a “No Woke Zone.”

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest.

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