Orbán, Judas and the gay lobby – behind Zoltán Balog’s attempt to rescue himself in his church

Only the shadow of Zoltán Balog could be seen under the arch of the tiny Austrian Orthodox stone monastery.

On 8 February, the former minister, who became a Reformed bishop shared a photo on social media, letting his followers know that he was retreating “for a few weeks to pray, think, read and write” in “the silence of God”.

Although it might have seemed at the time that this was Balog’s way of escaping from the pardon case that had by then become a national scandal, he had in fact been planning this retreat to Austria for a long time. Months earlier, he had already refused all requests for February meetings. He planned a several week-long sabbatical in a quiet street of Sankt Andrä am Zicksee, a few kilometers from Sopron.

But there was little time for contemplation. After Katalin Novák’s resignation, it soon became known – following a joint article by Direkt36 and Telex – that Balog had played a crucial role in the pardon decision that led to one of the biggest political scandals of recent decades. It was Balog who lobbied Novák – his former subordinate and who he also mentored – to grant presidential pardon to the former deputy director of the Bicske children’s home, who was found guilty by a court of law of covering up pedophile crimes.

Since then, Balog has been struggling to retain his position in the Reformed Church, which he has dominated for the past few years. Although he has already resigned from one of his important positions, he has not yet officially left it, and he continues to lead one of the districts as bishop.

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Direkt36 has in recent weeks spoken to nearly 20 sources with insight into Balog’s struggle to retain at least some of his influence within the church. The way Balog has handled the case has caused an uproar among Reformed circles, and many have seen the bishop’s pushing the church ahead of himself as a way of defending himself as a backhanded move.

However, the situation has changed since then and Balog now enjoys increasingly broad support. One reason for this is that external pressure has led to a unity of the church leadership, while overt attacks from government circles have ceased. Balog spoke in private about how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had left it up to him to decide about his future.

We asked Balog a detailed series of questions, but he did not provide a substantive response. Sending the text of the Lenten circular letter, signed by Balog and issued on 6 March, and noted by the Synod Presidium, the Reformed Church’s communications department replied that “in the Reformed Church, it is the bodies that decide on the church’s position.”

The bonfire

Two days after Novák’s resignation, Balog cut short his retreat in Austria on 12 February, and went home to defend himself to his church. As part of this, he sent a letter to pastors and presbyters.

In the letter, obtained by Telex, Balog stressed that as an adviser to Katalin Novák he was not representing the church. He did not mention János Vásárhelyi, who committed pedophile crimes in the child care facility in Bicske, but pointed out that as minister he had suspended him from his post as director “when suspicions arose against him”.

“In the interest of the deputy director, Endre K. (who was not convicted as a pedophile), a request for pardon was submitted to the President of the Republic. The request was not submitted by me” said Balog, who concluded his letter by recalling the pastoral solidarity he said they had experienced at their meeting in the Groupama Arena a few weeks earlier.

Zoltán Balog on October 18, 2023 Photo: Zoltán Balog / Facebook

The day after Balog’s return, on 13 February, he called a so-called dean-deacon meeting. It is attended by the deans and deacons of the 27 dioceses in Hungary. One source familiar with church affairs described the meeting as an “informal yet influential” forum, with the four bishops from the dioceses attending.

Balog approached the participants through his direct team ahead of the meeting. According to a source from the church, the deans and deacons were told via phone, that “it is not in anyone’s interest that drastic things to happen”, referring to the need to avoid calls for the resignation of Balog as synod president and bishop.

Despite this, the meeting was held in a tense atmosphere, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting. Balog arrived to the huge building on Abonyi Street in a black Volvo SUV, which, avoiding the journalists waiting outside, pulled up to one of the internal entrances so that the bishop could disappear inside the building as soon as he got out of the car. Before the meeting, the phones had to be handed in, which was criticized by many. Some deans did not even go to the meeting. There were also some who did not want to give up their phones, and a colleague of Balog’s told them that at least they would know who would leak details to the press.

“There was a brutal news blackout,” said a source with insight into the operation of the Reformed leadership of circumstances created by Balog and his team.

At the meeting, Balog tried to explain to his audience why he supported Endre K.’s request for pardon. According to several sources familiar with the details of the meeting, Balog explained that he had received a lot of information on the alleged unfairness of the trial of Endre K. in the second instance. The bishop also said that it might have been the case that the judges were under social pressure and therefore did not weigh all the evidence sufficiently.

According to one participant, it was mainly Károly Fekete, Bishop of the Tiszántúl District, who objected to Balog’s explanation, and “deans also asked questions”. According to the source, Fekete said that he could not accept what the synod president had said. (In their response the press department of the Tiszántúli Egyházkerület led by Fekete sent us the letter in which he called on Zoltán Balog to resign. The press department said that the bishop maintains his position and “considers his request for patience and moderation to be valid for him as well”.)

“The next day the church exploded,” explained a church source who also knows Reformed leaders, who said Balog had not expected an uproar among ordinary believers and the lower clergy. According to the source, Balog made two serious mistakes in his statement.

“In the video he did not apologize to the child victims. The other was that he pushed the church in front of himself,”

explained the source, who said many felt Balog was making power maneuvers and using the church as a defense. The source said that by specifically referring in the statement to his belief that the government had no role in the church’s settlement of the matter, he was “sort of sending a message that I defended myself, Viktor”.

“I have not met anyone at the Synod center who did not think that Zoltán Balog was smearing the church with the case,” said another source close to the church leadership.

The protests were intensified by the fact that a day after the meeting Károly Fekete attacked Balog in public in a bishop’s circular letter, calling on him to resign.

Balog was supported by fellow bishop József Steinbach, head of the Dunántúl District, who, according to the daily political newspaper Népszava, was at the synod meeting of the opinion that if Zoltán Balog was good when he was getting support for the church, he should be good in these difficult times. In a later statement, Steinbach did not deny or confirm that he held this view. “Neither of us has the authority to comment on what has been said there,” he wrote in a statement on the synod meeting posted on the church’s website.

However, some within the Church were more critical of Balog’s handling of the crisis. For example, they were disturbed by what they saw as the bishop’s political behavior in the situation.

“We issue statements, we expect them to accept our narrative. Just like in Fidesz. But we are a church, questions should be asked,”

said a source close to the church leadership.

Ordinary believers were also disturbed by Balog’s role in the pardon case either. “There was outrage and incomprehension in the church. Some believers who work in child protection are particularly outraged and don’t understand why Zoltán Balog is not resigning,” a pastor explained.

There was also pressure on Balog from outside the church. The Reformed Church member Viktor Orbán did not take a clear position after the dean-deacon meeting, but critical voices appeared in the Fidesz media. Zsolt Bayer, a leading figure in government propaganda, shared an article critical of Balog on his blog by Gergely Huth, editor-in-chief of the Pesti Srácok propaganda website, and as a comment on the results of the sympathy vote, he wrote “the big question is how God voted…”

According to a source with contacts in the church leadership, Bayer’s statement and other critical articles “were interpreted even in Balog’s circle that the government wants him to step down”.

The bishop’s case was also actively covered by media independent from the government’s influence, and the church’s communication was unprepared for the heightened interest. “In the government, I saw what hardcore crisis communication looked like. It wasn’t like that,” said a source close to the government who had followed the process closely.

The pressure eventually has had its effect. Three days after the dean-deacon meeting, Balog resigned from his position as president of the synod, the highest position in the Reformed Church of Hungary.

He did so at the so-called synodal meeting, an informal leadership forum of the church (the formal one is the synod, but it takes longer to convene). The bishop’s behavior at this meeting was quite different from Tuesday’s. “Balog apologized there. He realized that he was no longer there and did not try to defend himself or prove that the pardon was the right decision. Of course, he told what he said later in the video, that he thought Endre K. was innocent,” said a source familiar with the details of the meeting.

“By Friday, the air had run out around him. It was shocking to see him burning alive on the bonfire of the media,”

said a source from the church who had known Balog for a long time about the sudden turnaround, referring to the fact that in the days before the bishop had been under constant pressure, the press was all over him and wherever he went, journalists were waiting.

However, Balog still has an important post within the church after the resignation: he heads the Dunamelléki district, one of the four Reformed districts in Hungary. He then concentrated on securing his position here and began an intensive campaign to do so.


This included several meetings initiated by Balog in the Dunamelléki district after the outbreak of the pardon case. According to a source with links to the bishop’s circle, Balog also referred to the events as road show.

One of these was a meeting on 2 March at the bishop’s office in Ráday Street, Budapest. About 60 pastors from two Budapest dioceses gathered in the second-floor banquet hall of the building, which burned down a few years earlier and was renovated in 2022. They had come to hear their bishops’ answers to their questions on the pardon case.

József Szloboda, dean of the Budapest-Northern Diocese, opened the event with prayer and a Bible reading for the large circle of clergy. Balog then took the floor. He spoke first of what he said had been achieved since his election as bishop and synod president, and then turned to the current situation. When asked, Mr Szloboda acknowledged that he had attended the event, but did not elaborate on what had happened there.

According to one participant, Balog also said that he was not welcome in the government circles: “He said that he had invited the local Fidesz MP to a pastoral inauguration that day, but he refused to attend, saying that >>it would not be good if he were to be seen with the bishop at this time<<“. The pastoral inauguration took place in Szentmártonkáta: the MP for the constituency, György Czerván, did not answer the question sent to him.

Most pastors at the meeting spoke in support of Balog, and some regretted that “they didn’t pray enough for their leaders”, including church and political leaders.

However, some pastors criticised Balog. Among them was László Thoma, a pastor from Gazdagrét in Budapest, who said in a sermon on 18 February that “politics cannot be so involved in the workings of the people of God” and said the bishop “would be most helpful if he would see the harm he is doing and resign his leadership.” Thoma said on Ráday Street, according to a source present at the meeting, that he “takes responsibility before God” for what he said at the time, adding that his views were shared by his presbytery. Then, citing that he was teaching a class at the Károli Gáspár Reformed University, he left the room. (Thoma declined to answer questions sent to him.)

Balog responded to the criticism of his political connections by contemplating on the history of the church and recalled that there had been Reformed leaders in the past who had a political background. Regarding Thoma, he pointed out that despite his criticism of him, he supported his appointment as a teacher. He dismissed another critical comment, which took issue with his failure to apologize to the victims in Bicske, by referring to the statement he made when he resigned as synod president. (At the time, he said in a prayer, “forgive me if the victims of child abuse could feel left to fend for themselves, not just now, but so many times in their lives. Protect them even when we fail to do so.”)

He spoke briefly about his resignation, saying that his departure from the presidency of the synod is “outward”, because in this position he represents the Church to society and the government, while the episcopate is “inward”, because it now includes the internal affairs of the Church, such as “pastoral care of pastors”.

A few days later, on 7 March, he also met with the pastors and deacons of the Diocese of Vértesalja in the Gárdony congregation house. According to one of the participants in the meeting, Szabolcs Koppány Hajdú, the dean of the diocese, stressed the importance of church cohesion.

“What do we care what people think of us outside? We shall stick together!”,

Hajdú called on pastors and deacon, according to a source at the meeting. The dean, according to the source, also spoke of the importance of recognizing friends and enemies, citing the British aircraft’s stranger-friend recognition system from World War II as a military example. He then gave the biblical example of Judas, who he said “was not an external enemy, yet he betrayed Jesus.” (Hajdú, when contacted, did not deny that he had spoken of these things, but said that the meeting was a private, non-press, religious event.)

After the dean’s introduction, Zoltán Balog took the floor.

The Bishop reiterated what he had said at the previous meeting, but also explained why he thought the Church was under so much pressure. According to leaks, Balog said that “if I were not here, the church would still be under attack.” He blamed the current situation on those “causing the storm”, referring to church figures who have expressed their views on the matter in public and the media.

Then one participant said that he began to reflect that if he resigned the episcopate, “representatives of the LGBTQ community will realize that they always have to attack the church if they want to force change.” According to the source, Balog added that if he also resigned from the leadership of the district, he would only be indicating that “the Reformed are a bunch of cowards who are not capable of defending their leaders.”

“What will we do when a power comes along that wants to ordain gay pastors or marry gay couples in churches?” – he asked, according to a source with details of the meeting.

Balog also spoke of Károly Fekete, the bishop of the Tiszántúl district, who called for his resignation after the dean-deacon meeting. According to sources familiar with the details of the meeting, it was not the call to resign that Balog objected to, but the fact that he had to learn about it from the press.

Károly Fekete, bishop of the Tiszántúli Reformed Church District on February 11, 2024. Photo: Tiszántúli Református Egházkerület / Facebook

Sources who attended the Ráday Street and Gárdony meetings separately said that Balog also spoke about Endre K.’s case on both occasions. They both unanimously claimed that the bishop said that he had met Endre K. in person, after which he was convinced that he was innocent despite the court verdict. He continued to maintain K.’s innocence and said in Gárdony that his support for the pardon was “not a moral but a political mistake.” (The personal meeting between Endre K. and Zoltán Balog, who was pardoned by Katalin Novák, was also reported by hvg.hu.)

Balog also said that there are politicians who have refused to meet him since the pardon case broke out but he had spoken to Viktor Orbán five times in recent weeks and assured the audience that the prime minister would leave it to his judgment how he decides about his future. Balog’s relationship with Orbán goes back a long time: in an interview in 2007, the bishop spoke of the then opposition leader as being “bound to him by a friendly loyalty”. We did not receive a reply to our questions sent to the prime minister.

The Moment of Truth

It seems that, after the initial uproar, the plan to silence critical voices and align the church behind Balog has succeeded.

An indication of this is the Lenten circular letter issued on March 6, signed by eight church leaders, including Balog and Fekete, who had called for Balog’s resignation just a few weeks earlier.

“While the world’s logic is to keep us in sin, we are determined by the spirit of confessing sin, repentance, apology, forgiveness, and the attitude of » go and sin no more « (John 8:11). In this spirit, we close this matter among ourselves and continue to serve God, our church, and our nation,” they wrote.

Balog is trying to demonstrate his openness to the Reformed community with meetings convened in the Dunamelléki Diocese. “The goal is to satisfy the curiosity of the pastors, answer their questions, and speak with them personally,” said a source with connections in church leadership about the meetings. “It’s not an election campaign; he wants to see what the lower clergy thinks,” added a source with insights into church affairs.

“The case has shaken the pastors. Everyone is struggling with how to interpret this for their congregation and what light it sheds on their ministry,”

explained a source participating in the meeting on Ráday Street.

Both Balog and other Reformed leaders, however, want to resolve the crisis caused by the pardon case among themselves. This is evidenced by a pastoral letter sent to pastors in the Vértesaljai Diocese on February 20, as obtained by Direkt36. In this letter, Szabolcs Koppány Hajdú, the dean, sent a message to those who believe Balog should resign. “If some demand his resignation, sooner or later everyone with ties to public life, politics as a church person, regardless of which side they are on (church, politics – clergy, congregation member), wishes the worst for our church, our country. Rather, would you let those lead the country, the communities, our church, who know neither God nor man, only their own interests?”

He then asked his fellow pastors: “…let us discuss internal matters affecting our church, differences of opinion among ourselves first! …Please, advise those who do not act this way! We cannot cause more harm to ourselves by succumbing to immediate impulses to disassociate.”

(In response to our inquiry, Hajdú did not deny writing the letter obtained by Direkt36 but did not respond substantively to questions about it.)

In recent weeks, more and more people have accepted Balog’s arguments, claiming that not only he but the entire church is under attack.

“The attacks have reached a level where the church has begun to close ranks. They see that Balog is not being attacked from the government, there are no leaks about him. Only the opposition media attacks him, but that is in their opinion biased anyways,”

explained one source familiar with the internal affairs of the church.

The support of Balog was also bolstered by the fact that many within the church feel that without him the state subsidies that have been trickling in nicely in recent years could be in danger. In recent years, many churches have been renovated, even the churches of smaller villages have received subsidies amounting to hundreds of millions of forints for renovation. In addition, the Reformed Church was enriched with institutions and real estate: after the conflagration, the Reformed college in Ráday Street and the bishop’s palace in the same building as well as the Károlyi-Csekonics Palace used by the Károli Gáspár Reformed University were renovated, and the 320-bed Törökbálint Pulmonology Hospital was recently added to the church’s institutions.

“To be cynical, that’s why he was elected,” said a church source. “Balog acted in many cases, he arranged everything for everyone, that was his profile. It became a general feeling that anything could be done, the pastors were waiting outside his room,” explained a pastor source.

“Many fear that with Balog’s fall, he would drag the church down with him,” explained another source from the Reformed church.

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Already during his ministerial tenure, Balog did a lot for his popularity within the church, and the church leaders openly talked about the fact that they owe him a lot of financial support. In 2018, István Szabó, Balog’s predecessor at the head of the Dunamellék Church District and as president of the synod, asked the pastors in his episcopal report to thank the minister personally for the extra resources: “…for Christian ethics, what’s more, for the Christian faith, the Christian life consecration has a small but important element, and that is that if we receive something that was not a reward, that was not written in our award letter, that was not planned in the budget, it is appropriate to thank them. What’s more, you must thank! That is the receipt… I should therefore like to thank the outgoing ministers, and among them Minister Zoltán Balog.”

The bishop himself believes that his person is a guarantee that the church will not have financial problems. At a meeting held for theology teachers in January of this year, he answered a question asked about the copious subsidies, “if there is another government, the moment of truth will come,” recalled one of the participants of the meeting.

The synod will formally decide on Balog’s resignation as synod president in April, this may confirm his decision, but it may even decide not to accept it. “If the people say, dear bishop, please let’s stay, then he might accept it,” explained a source close to the Reformed church’s leadership, who says that the current public mood in the church favors Balog’s stay. However, he added that “a month and a half is a very long time, Easter will be in the meantime, there will be political events, the Child Protection Act may be on the agenda”, and these may change the circumstances.

András Pethő contributed to this article.

Cover photo by Péter Somogyi (szarvas) / Telex

  • Patrik Galavits

    Patrik graduated in Public and International Administration from the National University of Public Service. He started out as a private sector employee at multinational corporations before he ventured into journalism. He became a reporter and radio show host at Klubrádió, then he produced a podcast and wrote articles at Azonnali.hu. Most recently he worked at Forbes Hungary. In 2019, he won a grant at WDR, a public broadcaster based in Germany. In 2022, he took part in an International Visitor Leadership Program for journalists, organized by the United States Department of State. He has been nominated for the Quality Journalism Award multiple times. His investigative article series involving abuses and sexual harassment at the Hungarian Dance Academy earned him a nomination for the Transparency Soma Award in 2021.