Orbán tries to shift blame for sexual abuse at orphanage on opposition, hoping to avoid having to talk about presidential pardon

February 28. 2024. – 10:39 AM


Orbán tries to shift blame for sexual abuse at orphanage on opposition, hoping to avoid having to talk about presidential pardon
Viktor Orbán speaking in Parliament on 26 February 2024 – Photo: János Bődey / Telex


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It seems that Fidesz is now trying to take the sting out of the clemency case by shifting the blame for the abuse at the Bicske children's home onto the opposition. Until now, the dominant narrative has been that the resignation of Katalin Novák and Judit Varga, who were embroiled in the scandal, proves that those on the right take responsibility for their mistakes, while those on the left do not. The government-friendly press and Megafon's influencers have been chanting this in unison for the past weeks.

Orbán's strategy has been to distance himself from the issue, while shifting the blame onto Katalin Novák. Not once has he mentioned Novák's name when speaking about the issue in public, only referring to her as Madame President each time. That is what he did both in his annual State of the Nation address on 17 February and in Parliament on Monday.

Monday's session of Parliament was the first time Orbán had to answer uncomfortable questions since the scandal broke. This was the first time he could not get away with simply saying that granting a pardon to Endre K., who covered up the pedophile case in the Bicske children's home was a mistake. The opposition of course seized the opportunity to use the clemency case to attack both the Prime Minister and the government, who have been campaigning for years with slogans about the importance of protecting children. Bertalan Tóth, leader of MSZP's parliamentary group, talked about "pedofidesz", while former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, chairman of DK, called Orbán "Hungary's first paedophile-friendly prime minister". Several members of the opposition questioned the claim that Orbán, being the country's all-powerful leader, was not aware of Endre K.'s presidential pardon, which is what Gergely Gulyás claimed at a government briefing.

Orbán had to react to this somehow, which brought about the statement that the 'left have harboured paedophiles'. The Prime Minister hit back at the opposition by claiming that János Vásárhelyi, the director of the Bicske children's home, who was convicted of paedophile crimes, was in fact their man: it was the opposition that had not launched an investigation against him, and it was also the opposition's responsibility that he had not been imprisoned before. “I would like to draw the attention of those who are now attacking the right or the governing coalition's factions regarding the pardon in the pedophile-case to a basic fact: we were the ones who put the pedophile offender in prison. We had to put him in prison because you did not put him in prison. Once again, you were the ones who kept the paedophile criminal head of the children's home in his position for 20 years. There was no investigation, or at least no investigation with consequences carried out against him during your time, and you left him in place.”

The Prime Minister was basing his statement on the fact that János Vásárhelyi was appointed as head of the Zsuzsa Kossuth Children's Home in Bicske, which is operated by the capital, during the term of Gábor Demszky’s mayorship in 1990 (Demszky was mayor of Budapest for five consecutive terms, between 1990-2010 – ed). Last Friday, Magyar Nemzet wrote that "Demszky had kept János V. in his position for 20 years, while the leftist liberal media sang his praises in the 1990s." What was going on in the institution first came to light only in 2011, after Fidesz rose to power, so it would have been difficult for the opposition to put the director in jail. According to Hvg's sources, János Vásárhelyi became the head of the Bicske children's home after leaving his previous job over a similar matter, but apparently no police report was filed at the time.

If one follows Orbán's logic, however, then he also holds responsibility for the Bicske case, since in 2002, prior to the municipal elections, he campaigned for the candidates of the local organisation in Bicske Összefogás a Városért Egyesület 2002 (Association for the City of Bicske). The association's list was led by János Vásárhelyi, who won the election and was a municipal council member until 2010.

Orbán's other major claim in parliament was that it was his government that launched police proceedings against János Vásárhelyi, and that they didn't rest when the first proceedings failed. "We opened the first police investigation against this man in 2011, and the currently ongoing investigation is going to reveal why it was not successful. But we didn't give up, and we opened the investigation for a second time. We put in prison the people you failed to lock up. So you were the ones who appointed the director of the children's home who committed paedophile crimes, you were the ones who left him there for 20 years, and then we put him in prison after the change of government in 2010. That's what happened." In another speech, he said, “According to my recollection, it was a minister of the government who filed a complaint against the director of the children's home in Bicske in 2016.”

This is certainly not true. In any case, it is difficult to understand what Orbán's means when he says that they were the ones who locked up János Vásárhelyi, because the judiciary is in principle independent of the government. It is easy to reconstruct when and how proceedings were initiated against Vásárhelyi using the articles that have been published since the clemency scandal broke. Two employees of the Bicske institution reported the sexual abuse to the municipality (under whose auspices the institution functioned), and as a result, the police launched an investigation. It was this investigation that was closed in 2012, with the police claiming that it could not be established that a crime had been committed.

A year later, the ombudsman's report found that the police had committed several oversights during the investigation. For example, the report criticized the fact that the deputy of the accused director, Endre K., (who was later granted a presidential pardon) had been appointed the legal representative of the victims, which could have significantly influenced their testimonies. Even if it had happened as Orbán claimed, they waited quite a long time to start new proceedings, since following the first unsuccessful investigation in 2011, János Vásárhelyi could continue to abuse the residents of the Bicske children's home for another five years.

Except that even in 2016, it was not the government's intervention that led to opening a police investigation against János Vásárhelyi. One of the director's former victims filed a complaint the day after a former resident of the children's home, who had also been abused by Vásárhelyi had committed suicide. A third victim also joined the complaint. It was only at this point that the State Directorate for Social Affairs and Child Protection, which operated the institution, ordered an investigation and suspended the director. The public became aware of the case in Bicske thanks to the press, after two former victims, Julián and Levente, shared their stories on RTL's programme Házon Kívül.

What Orbán failed to mention, however, is that the former director, János Vásárhelyi, who ended up being convicted of pedophile crimes, received the István Bárczy Award from the capital in 2015 while Fidesz politician István Tarlós was the mayor. At that time, the capital was already under the leadership of the governing party. Moreover, the capital's leadership decorated him in spite of being aware of the previous accusations against him. It has also emerged that as the head of the capital's child protection authority, Gáborné Pölöskei Annamária Áder, the sister of former President János Áder, was also aware of the accusations from 2011. The current mayor, Gergely Karácsony was mayor of Zugló at the time, and he also voted in favour of awarding Vásárhelyi, which he explained by saying that the assembly was not aware of the previous accusations.

Another potentially embarrassing detail for the governing parties is that it was a KDNP-member deputy mayor, Gábor Bagdy, who nominated Vásárhelyi for the award, describing him as " an understanding person with a legendary patience and acceptance, who has a child-centered attitude, and whose leadership style is characterized by calmness, optimism, cheerfulness and, at the same time, a sufficient degree of assertiveness".

Nor did Orbán mention that the director from Bicske also received a high-ranking state award during his premiership. On 20 August 2016, János Vásárhelyi was awarded the Hungarian Bronze Cross of Merit "in recognition of his exemplary dedication to the education of disadvantaged children and their preparation for independent life". The medal is officially awarded by the President following a proposal by the Prime Minister. Dozens of people were awarded the medal alongside Vásárhelyi at that time, but the decision was indeed signed by János Áder, who was President at the time, and countersigned by Viktor Orbán.

Naturally, the award was not presented by the opposition, but by one of Orbán's ministers: in this case, János Lázár, the Minister in charge of the Prime Minister's Office, who did so due to the absence of Zoltán Balog, the Minister responsible for the area.

In other words, Vásárhelyi was decorated at the time when according to Orbán they were about to again initiate police proceedings against him.

As fate would have it, the victims reported Vásárhelyi's actions just a few weeks after he received the state award. This time, in 2019, he was sentenced to 8 years in prison for the abuse committed between 2004 and 2016.

Orbán's and Fidesz's goal with blaming the opposition is to avoid talking about the specific case, i.e. Endre K.'s pardon. But there would be plenty to talk about, since

  • it is still not known on what basis Katalin Novák pardoned the former deputy director of the children's home in Bicske, and
  • Zoltán Balog, who advocated for Endre K.'s pardon still refuses to say why he thought the man who had been convicted of coercion was innocent.

It seems, however, that the government considers the case closed. State Secretary Tamás Menczer told Telex in parliament that there is nothing to be investigated, there are only lessons to be learned. Defence Minister Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky perhaps put it more succinctly, saying, " All is now in order with the pardon case."

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