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Hungary's president resigns over child sexual abuse scandal

Hungary's president has resigned amid controversy over her pardoning of a man convicted in a child sexual abuse case.

President Katalin Novak faced days of growing pressure to resign because she decided to pardon a man who was convicted of covering up crimes committed by a sexual predator at a children’s home.

The 46-year-old announced in a televised message on Saturday that she would step down from the presidency, an office she has held since 2022.

“I issued a pardon that caused bewilderment and unrest for many people,” Novák said on Saturday. “I made a mistake.”

Novak - the first female president in Hungary's history - has unleashed a political scandal unprecedented for the country's long-serving nationalist government, Fidesz.

Her resignation is a rare episode of turmoil for the right-wing party, which under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been accused of dismantling democratic institutions and rigging the media in its favour.

Novak, a key ally of Orbán, has been an outspoken advocate of traditional family values and the protection of children.

"We know for sure that no serious decision is made around the Fidesz House without Viktor Orbán's knowledge and consent," wrote Hungarian politician Donáth Anna on Facebook.

"Viktor Orbán must stand up and explain what happened. Judit Varga signed the pardon on behalf of the prime minister and his government. This is Orbán's system, so his responsibility cannot be denied."

Scandal could bring down other politicians

Hungary's main opposition parties have called for a presidential election.

"In order to prevent this from happening again.... we are taking the initiative so that the people, not Viktor Orbán and the Parliament, decide on the person of the new president of the republic, as it works perfectly in most European countries," wrote Klára Dobrev of the left-wing Democratic Coalition on Facebook.

Hundreds of protesters gathered by the Presidential palace in Budapest on Saturday night to celebrate her resignation.

Demonstrators said they were glad, but added that a single resignation is not enough to change the overall system created by Orbán.

"She’s not the main criminal, you’ve got to look all the way to the top. I think she has good intentions, but I know she’s a big fan of Orbán. The truth needs to be found, and it’s scary that a Fidesz person is going to replace her,” said protestor Anna Bujna.

The man whom Novak pardoned was sentenced to more than three years in prison in 2018 for pressuring victims to retract their claims of sexual abuse in a state-run children's home by its director, who was sentenced to eight years for abusing at least 10 children between 2004 and 2016.

It was well known that Novak had pardoned some two dozen people ahead of Pope Francis' visit to Hungary in April 2023.

However, it was only recently disclosed that one of those pardoned was the deputy director of the children's home who covered for his boss while he preyed on its residents.

Novak was the youngest person to ever hold the office of president in Hungary.

Also implicated in the pardon was Judit Varga, another key Fidesz figure, who endorsed the pardon as Hungary’s then Justice Minister.

Varga was expected to lead the list of European Parliament candidates from Fidesz when elections are held this summer. But in a Facebook post on Saturday, she said she would take political responsibility for endorsing the pardon and “retire from public life".

Varge also resigned from her seat as a member of parliament.