Katalin Novak: Hungary’s first female president resigns over child sex abuse pardoning scandal

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Hungary’s first female president, Katalin Novak, has announced her resignation over a pardon granted to a man convicted of covering up sexual abuse in a children’s home.

Ms Novak, 46, a close ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the youngest person to hold the office of president, resigned on Saturday just a week after her presidential pardon was first reported.

The announcement followed mounting pressure from opposition politicians and widespread public protests outside the presidential palace on Friday evening.

“I am resigning my post,” said Ms Novak in a televised address, acknowledging she had made a mistake.

“I apologise to those who I hurt and all the victims who may have had the impression that I did not support them,” the former minister for family policy added.

“I am, I was, and I will remain in favour of protecting children and families.”

“The pardon granted and the lack of explanation may have given rise to doubts about zero tolerance of paedophilia. But there can be no doubt on this subject”, she added, before offering her apologies.

The controversy came after the names of 25 criminals, pardoned by Ms Novak in April last year as part of a visit to Hungary by Pope Francis, were made public by Hungarian media last week.

The list of individuals afforded clemency included the former deputy director of a children’s home convicted of covering up his boss’s sexual abuse of the children in their care.

According to Hungarian media outlets the man had been jailed for three years after forcing abused children to retract their allegations against the director of the home.

The director himself was jailed for eight years over the abuse at the government-run facility.

The pardon means “Endre. K”, who cannot be fully named in Hungarian media due to the country’s strident privacy laws, is now a free man and could theoretically be allowed to return to his profession.

Since the independent news site 444 revealed the decision last week, the country’s opposition had been calling for Ms Novak’s resignation.

The former president was in Qatar at the time attending Hungary’s match against Kazakhstan at the World Water Polo Championships when the news broke and she decided to cut her trip short.

As soon as her plane had landed Ms Novak emerged and announced her resignation.

Minutes after her announcement another ally of Orban, Judit Varga, also announced her “withdrawal from public life”.

As the former justice minister, a post she had quit in order to lead a European parliament election bid, Varga had approved the pardon in April.

“I renounce my mandate as an MP and the head of the list for the European parliament,” she announced on Facebook.

“It was quick: first Novak, then Varga,” said Hungarian MEP Anna Donath, reacting to the news.

“But we know that no important decision can be taken in Hungary without Viktor Orban’s approval,” added Donath, a member of the small liberal Momentum party, on Facebook.

“He has to take responsibility and explain what happened … it’s his system”.

In an attempt to calm national anger, Prime Minister Orban had announced on Thursday that he wanted to revise Hungary’s constitution to exclude the possibility of pardoning pedophile criminals.

Ms Novak, who has been temporarily replaced by the Speaker of parliament Laszlo Kover, was named last year by Forbes magazine as the most influential woman in Hungarian public life.

The 46-year-old became the first woman to hold the essentially ceremonial role of president in March 2022.

Her departure leaves Hungary’s political landscape even more male-dominated. Since mid-2023 there have been no women in the conservative leader’s 16-man cabinet.

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