Hungarian president resigns amid pedophilia pardon scandal

Hungarian president resigns amid pedophilia pardon scandal

Hungary's President Katalin Novak announced on national television on Saturday that she was resigning, as she faced mounting pressure for issuing a presidential pardon to a man convicted as an accomplice for helping to cover up a sex abuse case at a children's home. 

"I made a mistake," Novak said. "Today is the last day that I address you as a president." 

Novak, 46, is a close ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and a member of his party, Fidesz. She returned from an official visit to Qatar at short notice to make the announcement. 

People attend a protest after Hungarian president Katalin Novák issued a pardon in a child sexual abuse case in Budapest, Hungary, Feb. 9, 2024.
Demonstrators gathered in Budapest on Friday night calling for Novak's resignation

Why was the president under pressure? 

She had faced intense criticism from some members of the public and opposition parties since the news of the presidential pardon became public knowledge on February 2.

Independet news site 444 revealed that one of the pardons had been granted to the former deputy director of a children's home who had helped his boss cover up sexually abusing children and adolescents there. The news outlet also spoke with the pardoned man, who said he had not directly requested clemency but said it was too soon for him to answer further questions.

The pardons were issued last April to around two dozen people, on the eve of a visit to Hungary by Pope Francis.

This photo taken and handout on April 28, 2023 by The Vatican Media shows Pope Francis, seated in a wheelchair, overlooking the city with Hungary's President Katalin Novak (R) and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) after a meeting with the authorities, civil society, and the diplomatic corps in the former Carmelite Monastery in Budapest, Hungary, during his second visit to Hungary in less than two years.
Novak, Orban and Hungary rolled out the red carpet for Pope Francis last April, but one decision taken on the eve of the pontiff's arrival has now cost Novak her job

"I made a decision to grant a pardon last April believing that the convict did not abuse the vulnerability of children whom he had overseen," Novak said on Saturday. "I made a mistake as the pardon and the lack of reasoning was suitable to trigger doubts over the zero tolerance that applies to pedophilia." 

Novak was also Hungary's family minister prior to becoming president. 

At least in theory, the pardon would make it possible for the former convict to return to his previous work as a physical education teacher.

Protests on Friday outside presidential palace 

A large protest was staged outside her office on Friday evening, with roughly 1,000 demonstrators gathering and some putting children's toys — some with tape covering their mouths — on the ground outside the building. 

Stuffed animals are thrown next to the Sandor Palace during a protest after Hungarian president Katalin Novák issued a pardon in a child sexual abuse case, in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.
Demonstrators put children's toys on the ground near Sandor Palace, the Budapest residence and workplace of the Hungarian president

Orban has also responded quickly in a bid to limit the fallout. On Thursday, he submitted a constitutional amendment to parliament that would make it impossible for presidents to issue pardons for crimes committed against children in the future. 

Announcing the plan on social media, Orban said his first thought would be to cut anyone "in half or into pieces" if they were to touch one of his children or grandchildren.

Hungary's president and head of state holds a largely ceremonial role, with the real power resting with the head of government, the prime minister. Presidents in Budapest do however hold the power of veto over new legislation and can ask the Constitutional Court to review draft laws.

Laszlo Kover, the speaker of the National Assembly parliament, will deputize as acting president in Novak's absence.

msh/wd (AFP, Reuters)