Calls for Hungary's conservative President Katalin Novák to resign grew Friday amid outrage over her pardoning of a person convicted of covering up a child sexual abuse case, which has unleashed an unprecedented political scandal for the long-serving nationalist government.
Novák is the first female president in Hungary's history. She sparked indignation after it was revealed that she issued a presidential pardon in April 2023 to a man convicted of hiding a string of child sexual abuses in a state-run children's home.
The man was sentenced to more than three years in prison in 2018 for pressuring victims to retract their claims of sexual abuse by the institution’s director, who was sentenced to eight years for abusing at least 10 children between 2004 and 2016.
The revelation in reports last week that Novák had pardoned the man led to widespread anger and calls for her resignation. On Friday, thousands of protesters gathered at Budapest's Sándor Palace, the presidential headquarters, demanding that she step down.
Ahead of the demonstration, Hungarian lawmaker in the European Parliament Anna Donáth said she believed the scandal was something Novák “cannot come back from.”
The pardon had sparked sadness, Donáth said, “and this really natural anger, which brings the people to the street, which brings the people out to be loud about it. This is the reason why the government is super worried right now.”
Novák is a close ally of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a former vice president of his governing Fidesz party. She served as Hungary's minister for families until her appointment to the presidency in 2022, and has been outspoken in advocating for traditional family values and the protection of children.
In addition to calling for her ouster, opposition parties have initiated an ethics proceeding against her in parliament. On Thursday, Orbán, in power since 2010, submitted a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit pardons for those convicted of crimes against children — a rebuke of Novák's decision.
Mert Pop, one of the sex abuse survivors, has publicly expressed dismay over the pardon and called on Novák to provide an explanation.
“Katalin Novák, the former minister for families, is one of the human faces of Fidesz who one could really believe was a good-natured mother, a good family mother, a calm, moderate president,” Pop said. "And then it turned out that this was not the case.”
At a news conference on Tuesday, Novák rejected calls to provide a formal explanation of her decision and did not respond to a question on whether she had considered resigning.
“Justification for decisions around presidential pardons is not public, and it is therefore natural that every pardon will raise questions, and these questions will often remain unanswered,” she said. “It is also true of all pardons that they are divisive by their nature.”
András Gál, the lawyer for some of the sexual abuse survivors, rejected Novák's comment, saying the pardon had been “a slap in the face” of the victims.
“Katalin Novák said that all pardons are divisive, but I think that pedophilia is different," he told journalists on Thursday. “If a pardon on a paedophile case is divisive, then there are only a couple of people on one side — the paedophiles — and everyone else is on the other side, because pedophilia is not divisive.”
Novák traveled to Qatar on Thursday for an official visit, according to the presidential office. Three of her advisers have resigned in recent days in the wake of the scandal.
Pop, the abuse survivor, said he feels the plight of the victims has been lost in the discussion over Novák’s decision, and that an opportunity to meet with the president to receive an explanation of the pardon would be “a good remedy” for allaying their concerns.
“It would certainly be a great help in understanding or processing this, if the gesture would be made to at least explain her decision to us, personally as victims,” he said. “This silence is what exacerbates and deepens these pains and the trauma itself.”