The hard-right president of Hungary stepped down on Saturday in the face of widespread protests and intense criticism surrounding a pardon she granted to a man convicted of helping to conceal pervasive sexual abuse carried out by the director of a state-run children’s home.
Katalin Novák, who at 46 is the youngest-ever person and first woman to hold the Hungarian presidency, said in a nationally televised address that news of the pardon had “caused bewilderment and unrest for many people.”
The pardon was one of about two dozen that Novák issued in April 2023, just before Pope Francis was set to visit the country.
“I made a mistake,” she said. “Today is the last day that I address you as a president.”
“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,” Novák said in Saturday’s address. “I made a mistake, because the decision to pardon and the lack of justification were apt to raise doubts over the zero tolerance that applies to pedophilia. But here, there is not and nor can there be any doubt.”
The pardon was revealed on Feb. 2 by independent news site 444, which identified the recipient as “Endre K.,” the former deputy director of the Kossuth Zsuzsa Children’s Home in Bicske, a town roughly 20 miles from Budapest. Endre K. was sentenced in 2018 to a three-year prison term for coercing victims to retract their allegations against his boss, János Vásárhelyi, who received an eight-year sentence for sexually abusing at least 10 children between 2004 and 2016.
The backlash was immediate, and ran through the week. On Friday, some 1,000 demonstrators gathered outside Novák’s office to demand her resignation. 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.
Novák has been called a “puppet” of ultranationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz Party has made a concerted effort to undermine democratic institutions and consolidate power since winning a constitutional majority in 2010. A vocal advocate for “traditional values,” Novák assumed the presidency in May 2022, after serving as Minister for Families.
“If this can happen, then the decade-long struggle of the victims and their legal defense has become utterly pointless,” András Gál, a lawyer representing victims in the Kossuth Zsuzsa case, told independent Hungarian news outlet Telex.hu. “... I think that her pardoning of the deputy director who forced the victims of the severely paedophilic children’s home director to change their testimonies is another huge step backwards. From now on, it seems there are no limits.”
Gál told Telex, which was founded in 2020 by Hungarian journalist Veronika Munk, that the victims, over the intervening years, “have become psychologically wrecked.” At least one has died by suicide, and others struggle with substance abuse as they continue to wrestle with the aftereffects of what they endured.
On Thursday, Orbán formally proposed an amendment to the nation’s constitution that would bar future presidents from pardoning anyone convicted of committing crimes involving children.
Another Fidesz member, former Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, also stepped down over the pardon and said in a Facebook post that she will “retire from public life.” Novák has not said what she plans to do next. Her seat will be filled, in an acting role, by parliamentary speaker László Kövér.