Leader of Hungarian Reformed Church, Zoltán Balog resigns over clemency scandal

February 16. 2024. – 06:56 PM


Leader of Hungarian Reformed Church, Zoltán Balog resigns over clemency scandal
Bishop Zoltán Balog, speaking in 2022 – Photo by Zoltán Máthé / MTI


Copied to clipboard

Zoltán Balog has resigned from his position as Synod President of the Hungarian Reformed Church, reformatus.hu reports. The former minister is succeeded by the vice-president of the synod, Dániel Pásztor. Balog will remain in the church as bishop.

In the video posted on the church's website, Balog prayed and then asked for the strength to resign from his post and "not to do it as an escape". "I ask for the strength and wisdom not to do it on political orders, and not because of hypocritical, external pressure," Balog said in his prayer about his decision, adding:

"I am not apologising for asking for a pardon for a man I believed to be innocent."

Balog asked God to forgive him for not being "vigilant and prudent enough" and for not seeing "the dangers for our country, for our nation, our church, and our president that were lurking in this pardon case." He then asked God to protect the child victims even when "they fail to do so". On the issue of clemency, Balog said:

"I asked for clemency. I asked for a pardon for someone. And if that is the reason why I now have to leave, don't think that this is the solution. It isn't. There will be a fight. The fight will continue after this. Just like it's been going on until now. However, the only important thing is – and I was much more wrong about this than I was about asking for clemency without considering all the circumstances – that this battle must be fought with spiritual weapons and not with the weapons of the public, or with the weapons of politics or the media."

Balog then told the synod members present on Friday that "I alone have made a mistake, but I refuse to forget all that was good". He added that he believed there were benefits to him "coming back from public life".

"But have no illusions! The witch-hunt, the hysteria will not stop even with me gone. But the decision to have me leave is up to you."

– he said, adding that he was moved by the informal meeting on Tuesday, when he was given a vote of confidence.

On Tuesday, he stayed on

Although on Tuesday, Balog acknowledged that he had indeed supported Endre K.'s pardon proposal, he did not resign from his position as bishop or synod president, citing the sympathy vote of the informal meeting of church leaders he called (where 86 percent of those present voted in his favour). Balog's announcement caused a major uproar in his denomination: those within the Reformed Church who criticised him worried about the message this would send to the child victims who were sexually abused at the Bicske children's home. Others wondered why, if Novák could draw the necessary conclusions in connection with approving the clemency of Endre K., Balog was not able to do so.

There are four bishops in the Hungarian Reformed Church. Balog is the bishop of one of these, the Danubian Church District. Of the other three Reformed bishops, only one has taken a strong stand against Zoltán Balog – who has also been president of the Synod – calling on him to step down as president after supporting Endre K.'s petition for clemency before the head of state. In a statement issued mid-week, Károly Fekete said he had called on Balog to step down at Tuesday's informal meeting and later on Wednesday as well. The Cistibiscan Church District, lead by Fekete is the largest in the Hungarian Reformed organisation.

As to why Balog's bishopric is significant, a source close to the government told us earlier that the government wants Zoltán Balog to fail as president of the synod, but not as bishop. According to another source, the reason for this is quite prosaic: since Balog is obviously their man, they would only lose if he didn't stay on as bishop.


“This story is far from over in the Reformed Church”

– is how another source put it on Tuesday, after the informal meeting of the elders and deans convened by Balog. At this meeting Balog called for a vote of confidence about himself, and the majority of those present (whose numbers are unknown) assured the bishop of their confidence with their vote. Balog then remained in his post, based on these grounds. However, Tuesday's meeting was informal and had no decision-making power under Reformed law. Balog holds two positions in the Reformed Church: that of synod president, which is decided on by the synod in the event of a resignation, and that of bishop, which is decided by the Danubian District. In other words: only those who elected him to these posts could have a say on the matter, not a meeting called by him at random.

“The word on the inside was that if Balog did not resign on Tuesday, he would be finished. He did not resign.”

This is what one of our sources told us. Several internal informants have indicated that this gave the green-light for getting rid of Balog, as neither the government nor the public looked kindly on Balog's support for Endre K.'s clemency without consequences.

The first swallow arrived one day after Balog refused to resign: an interesting opinion piece appeared in Magyar Nemzet. In it, Gergely Huth, editor-in-chief of Pesti Srácok attacked Balog. He was followed by Zsolt Bayer the government's favourite publicist. And on Wednesday evening, the recently fired director-general of the National Museum, László L. Simon, spoke on Hír TV about Katalin Novák having acted morally and correctly, by taking responsibility and resigning. And if Balog had indeed advised her to pardon the deputy who helped the paedophile director of the children's home in Bicske, then his responsibility is clear and the morally right thing for hm to do is to follow the President's example and "resign herself".

The politician

Within the Reformed Church, concerns over Balog's political role arose as early as 2020, when he ran for the bishopric of the Danubian Church District (he was later elected). The reason why Balog had someone running against him was that many in the Reformed Church feared that the former minister would bring more politics into the church. Therefore, several people approached the former rector of the Károli Gáspár Reformed University and encouraged him to run against Balog. Politics had already entered the church in Balog's campaign rhetoric. In his candidacy debate, for example, he argued that

“Jesus Christ is better, more beautiful and stronger than Momentum and Fidesz.”

During the debate, Balog also stressed that he believes there is "no shame in cooperating with the government", and hinted at public funds being available in case of his future bishopric. Before Balog, there had been examples of a clergyman becoming a political figure, but not the other way round. In recent years, however, the Reformed Church (of which PM Orbán himself is a member) has become increasingly important to Fidesz, and the government has given more and more money to them. In 2019, the Hungarian Reformed Church congratulated Fidesz on its victory in a public statement. That same year, Gergely Gulyás (Minister of the Prime Minister's Office) gave a speech at the joint synod of the church, and the bishop of the Cistibiscan Church District read a letter from then-president, János Áder.

The matter was made even more curious by the fact that Balog did not even meet the criteria for nomination to the bishopry until 2019, as the electoral law stated that a person could only be nominated for the office of bishop and the leader of the church if he had at least ten years of continuous independent pastoral service. However, at the 2019 spring meeting of the Synod, the word "continuous" was removed from the law, thus allowing Balog to become bishop in 2020 and synod president in 2021. Balog had not served as a pastor continuously because he took a break in 2006 after becoming a Fidesz MP.


Zoltán Balog's responsibility in the scandal that led to the resignation of Katalin Novák has come to light because several independent sources close to the government and the office of the president have in recent days told Direkt36 and Telex that as an adviser to the president and an old mentor of Novák, Balog played an important role in the pardoning case. According to these sources, Balog had encouraged the President to pardon Endre K.

When the scandal broke and both Novák's colleagues and Viktor Orbán's team demanded an explanation from Balog, he defended himself by saying that it was not his personal decision, but that several people within the leadership of the Reformed Church wanted Endre K., who has good family ties to the Reformed Church, to be pardoned. On Monday, government politicians had already signaled to the Reformed Church that they would like Zoltán Balog to "draw the right conclusions", and reportedly, even Viktor Orbán held Balog responsible.

In a video published on reformatus.hu on Tuesday, Balog said that he was not the one who had submitted the petition for clemency, but that as an adviser to the President he had agreed with it "based on preliminary opinions and other information". "I was wrong and I made a mistake," he admitted, apologising. Balog also added, invoking the favourable vote, that he would not resign.

For more quick, accurate and impartial news from and about Hungary, subscribe to the Telex English newsletter!