How Viktor Orbán tried to extinguish the pedophile pardon scandal that shook his government

By 8 February, the whole country was abuzz with the scandal that had broken out six days earlier when it was reported that Hungarian President Katalin Novák pardoned the accomplice of a convicted pedophile, but former justice minister Judit Varga, who countersigned the pardon, seemed completely calm that day.

At the Norwegian embassy in Budapest, she met with ambassadors of European countries for a nearly two-hour-long working lunch, the official topic of which was the upcoming EP elections.

Varga was previously expected to head Fidesz’s election list and she was talking to diplomats about what she anticipated to see during the campaign. According to one participant, Varga seemed “cheerful, confident” and gave no indication that she feared the pardon scandal would break her career.

When the subject was raised at the ambassadors’ meeting, Varga calmly said of her own role that as justice minister she had no choice but to sign the pardon application already accepted by Katalin Novák. “Who am I to question the pardon decision of the President?” – Varga said, according to one of the participants.

Just over 48 hours later, however, Varga also tendered her resignation and announced her complete retirement from public life. The turn of events in her case thus showed the speed with which events moved within the governing Fidesz party and the government as leading politicians were dealing with the pardon issue.

Over the past week, Direkt36 has spoken to several sources with close ties to the government who have insight into what happened behind the scenes. The sources, who have requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, have told us how the government and Viktor Orbán personally handled what was perhaps the biggest domestic scandal of the past fourteen years of Fidesz government.

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The Prime Minister’s staff did not respond to a detailed list of questions.

“They were unprepared”

On Friday 2 February at 10:28, 444, an independent news site, published an article reporting that President of the Republic Katalin Novák had pardoned the former deputy director of the Bicske children’s home in April, who had been convicted for helping to cover up pedophile crimes committed by the director of the institution.

As the news began to spread in the media outside the government, it quickly caught the attention of the office of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, known as Karmelita, where Antal Rogán, who runs the government’s communications and propaganda machine, also works.

Sources close to the government who were familiar with the events said that Orbán and his entourage had been caught off guard by the news. “It took the government completely by surprise, they were unprepared. Neither the president nor Judit Varga had informed Orbán and his party about the pardon case when the decision was made [in April last year],” said one source, who had spoken to several senior government officials in recent weeks.

Another source, who has spoken to several people close to Orban in recent days, had similar information. “The reaction, the confusion at the beginning proves that there was no knowledge of it at the top level,” the source explained.

At the beginning, it really did seem that the professional and robust propaganda machine led by Rogán did not know what to do with the matter.

A few hours after the article appeared, on Friday afternoon, the president’s office known as Sándor Palace, which is located right next to Karmelita in the Buda Castle, issued a statement in which it tried to deflect the matter by saying that the pardoned man, Endre K., had not been convicted of pedophilia. They, however, it did not explain why Novák had made that decision.

Later that evening, the government propaganda machine was set in motion. An article was published on the Magyar Nemzet website, in which, among other things, they tried to play down the case by proving how good a person Endre K. was.

“The convict had been serving his sentence since 2021, spending a total of one year and five months in a penitentiary. According to our newspaper’s information, during this time there was nothing to criticise in his behaviour,” the newspaper, which is part of the propaganda machine, reported.

“The story has also reached the rightwing voters”

While in public the government tried to pretend that this was an insignificant story, behind the scenes they were aware of its seriousness.

“It has been on the radar of Karmelita since Friday,” said a source close to the government, who added that Orbán’s staff immediately demanded an explanation from the Sándor Palace.

The head of state’s office said that, as Direkt36 and Telex revealed last week, it was Zoltán Balog, a protestant bishop who has long had close ties with the Novak and who had previously served as a minister in the Orbán government, who lobbied for the pardon.

Balog has long been a leading figure in Fidesz circles, and his personal relationship with Viktor Orbán dates back to the 1990s. In 2007, Balog told the HVG newspaper that he had a “friendly loyalty” to Orbán.

Even though Novak’s office invoked such an old confidant, it was not enough for the prime minister and his staff. “Orbán did not accept the excuse that Balog was behind this,” said a source close to the government, who added the prime minister’s position was that “Novák is the president of the republic, she decides, it is her responsibility”.

But in the first days, there was still confidence within the government that they could get away with the scandal without suffering serious consequences. “They thought in the government communications center that the case would die down and not blow up,” said a source.

In the middle of next week, however, there was a sharp change in the Karmelita’s attitude.

The government has long devoted huge resources to polling on even the most insignificant issues and they have been making policy decisions on that basis. Polls were also taken on the pardon issue, and when the results came in on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was clear to the prime minister’s staff that they had miscalculated if they thought they could get through this without serious damage.

“Two things emerged. One was that the story reached the rightwing voters, and they [the government] tried in vain to block it. The other was that there was a very serious uproar within their own camp about this pardon,” said a source familiar with the details of the polling results.

The pardon case has also been particularly sensitive for Fidesz because the issue of child protection has been at the center of their policy for some time. They had previously passed a law called the Child Protection Act, which conflated pedophilia with homosexuality. The government even held a referendum on the subject.

After the polls, it was clear to the prime minister’s staff that they had to act, and Orbán himself was directly involved in the response.

On Thursday afternoon, 8 February, the prime minister posted a Facebook video announcing that he had initiated a constitutional amendment to make it impossible to pardon perpetrators of crimes against underage children.

According to a source close to the government, the announcement, which was humiliating for Novák because it further limited the president’s already weak powers, was intended to push the increasingly damaging issue away from Orban. According to the source, the prime minister – who was angered by the president’s apparently careless act – sent a message with the video that he personally would not get involved in the scandal and “would not save Novák.”

It was then clear for the top officials in the government that they would have to take some drastic action to close the case. According to a source close to the government, Orbán is a “cold-blooded professional in such crisis situations and acts immediately”, so it was already suggested on Thursday that Novák and possibly Varga should go.

The final decision was taken at an informal meeting of the Fidesz leadership on Friday, where the prime minister discussed the matter with his inner circle. “That sealed the deal, that’s where the resignations were decided,” said a source with insight into the matter, who said the meeting participants agreed that not only Novák, but Varga should also bear responsibility for the scandal.

Although Varga, as justice minister, did not initially support the pardon, she signed it after Novák insisted. “Varga had to go because the thinking was that they should finish the job” – said another source on how Orbán and his team thought the scandal should be put out.

They wanted to avoid a situation in which attention would be refocused on Varga as the person who countersigned pardon decision. “Orbán wanted a permanent solution”, said a source close to the government, who added the aim was to “permanently insulate the government from this case”.

Novák and Varga announced their resignations on Saturday, the day after Friday’s Fidesz leaders’ meeting.

“Not stuttering in English”

Orbán decided to cut loose the two politicians so quickly even though by doing that he lost two key members of his team.

He counted on both the support of both Novák and Varga for his increasingly ambitious foreign policy plans. According to sources close to the government, Orbán chose them for these positions – Novák as head of state and Varga to lead Fidesz in Brussels after the EP elections – precisely because he wanted them to play a major role in building his international alliances.

“Here were two women who look good, speak languages, argue well,” explained a source who had previously worked alongside Novák. The source emphasised that Novák speaks French and English fluently. “There were no such people in Fidesz before. The fact that someone from us speaks French in Brussels and not stutter in English is a serious matter,” the source added.

For Orbán, the process of deliberately building his foreign policy team to be, in the words of a source close to the government, “polyphonic” has now suffered a setback.

While he concentrates on such symbolic events such as meeting Donald Trump or speaking at the US Conservative Conference, he assigns technical matters to other people.

This is what he did with Varga, for example, when she was justice minister and was entrusted with some of the contentious negotiations with the EU institutions. As President of the Republic, Novák also went abroad a lot to negotiate, and although she represented the same interests as Orbán, she did so in a different style.

“Novák was stepping next to Orbán, but she does not threaten the prime minister because he still makes the decisions,” the source explained.

Another source close to the government said there was therefore now “a huge sense of grief” and many people did not understand how Novák could have made such a mistake. “They don’t understand why she was not alert. She knew what she was signing, she knew the concerns of Varga and the lawyers dealing with the pardon cases,” the source said.

While there is mostly just incomprehension about Novak, Balog, who played an important role in the pardon application, is judged by many people inside Fidesz more harshly. “They are now very angry with Balog,” said one source, adding that there is “elementary anger against the bishop”.

  • András Szabó

    András worked eight years as a journalist at Origo, a then prestigious online news site, but also spent several years at Index and news outlets. At Direkt36 he covers Russian-Hungarian relations, activities of business circles close to Fidesz, and political decision making processes of the Orbán government. In 2011 he received the Gőbölyös Soma Award dedicated to investigative journalism in Hungary, and in 2010 he won the Quality Journalism Award, both for a series of articles that focused on a corruption case connected to the former Socialist-led government.

  • András Pethő

    András is a co-founder, editor and executive director of Direkt36. Previously, he was a senior editor for leading Hungarian news site Origo before it had been transformed into the government’s propaganda outlet. He also worked for the BBC World Service in London and was a reporter at the investigative unit of The Washington Post. He has contributed to several international reporting projects, including The Panama Papers. He twice won the Soma Prize, the prestigious annual award dedicated to investigative journalism in Hungary. He was a World Press Institute fellow in 2008, a Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in 2012/13, and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 2019/20. András has taught journalism courses at Hungarian universities.

  • Szabolcs Panyi

    Szabolcs graduated from Eötvös Loránd University where he studied Hungarian language and literature. Between 2013 and 2018, he was an editor and political reporter at At Arizona State University, he studied investigative journalism on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2017-2018. In the fall of 2018, he joined Direkt36, where he mainly works on stories related to national security and foreign policy. Meanwhile, he helped launch, a Warsaw-based cross-border investigative journalism initiative for the Visegrád region, where he is currently leading the Central Eastern European investigations. He received the Quality Journalism Award and the Transparency-Soma Award four times each, and he was also shortlisted for the European Press Prize in 2018 and 2021.