Hungarian sex abuse scandal hits close to home for Viktor Orban

Cover-up of paedophilia at orphanage near prime minister’s village dents reputation and leads to rise of internal challenger

Viktor Orban has showered his home village with money and favours in a display of what his patronage can deliver.

But the cover-up of sexual abuse at an orphanage in Bicske, a town next door, has turned into one of the biggest political liabilities for Hungary’s longest-serving prime minister – and led to the rise of an internal rival.

Accusations of paedophilia were first brought against the head of the orphanage, Janos Vasarhelyi, in 2011, when authorities decided the evidence was insufficient to prosecute.

Vasarhelyi is a long-standing supporter of Orban. He had worked with children for 25 years, including in Orban’s home village, where the prime minister had built a football stadium and a dedicated train line and where sports clubs had been founded by members of Orban’s family.


After a child who lived at that facility died by suicide in 2016, Vasarhelyi was forced out and prosecutors brought charges against him. As the trial unfolded in 2017, Endre Konya, deputy director at the Bicske orphanage, tried to persuade one of the teenage victims to withdraw his testimony against Vasarhelyi, according to Hungary’s top court.

Konya “used his power as deputy director and wanted to help [Vasarhelyi] avoid punishment for sexual assault against a vulnerable minor, while also concealing the fact that the withdrawal [of the testimony] was coerced”, the court said.

In the end, both men were sentenced to prison. Vasarhelyi is still serving his eight-year sentence for sexually abusing a minor, but Konya, who was found guilty of witness intimidation, was released last year after being pardoned in secret by the country’s president, Katalin Novák, an Orban ally.

That pardon implicated Orban’s allies, severely damaging the prime minister’s own reputation and that of his right-wing Fidesz party ahead of European Parliament elections in June. It also fuelled the popularity of a splinter movement from Fidesz’s own ranks.

A barrister discovered the pardon by accident in a court journal in February and sent it to local media. Soon afterwards, Novák stepped down over the affair along with Judit Varga, another Orban ally and former justice minister, who withdrew her bid as Fidesz lead candidate in the European Parliament elections.

On the day Varga resigned, Peter Magyar, her ex-husband, started a vocal campaign against what he calls the hypocrisy and graft of the Fidesz establishment.

A former diplomat and executive of state-backed companies, Magyar had rubbed shoulders with the very elites he now rails against.

“Not for a minute longer do I want to partake in a system where the real culprits hide behind women’s skirts,” he wrote on Facebook, in reference to Orban’s two female allies taking the fall.

He has since struck a chord with Hungarian voters, with tens of thousands taking to the streets of Budapest last week to show their support. Opinion polls indicate that his party, once formed, could become third-largest – chipping away at Fidesz in the upcoming European Parliament elections and positioning Magyar as a serious contender in general elections in two years’ time.

Magyar told the Financial Times last month that his ex-wife and the president had been sacrificed to “shield the premier at any costs from the adverse effects” of the scandal.

Orban’s spokesperson called Magyar’s campaign “a desperate move of a man in a hopeless situation” and said the government would ignore him.

A police report has since been leaked about an alleged domestic dispute between Magyar and Varga dating back to 2021. Varga has reaffirmed her allegiance to Orban and accused Magyar of verbal violence. Magyar has not disputed details about their fights, but denied being involved in physical violence.

In Bicske, some locals seem certain about who requested the pardon in the first place.

“We may never know who told the president to sign the pardon, but we are pretty sure it wasn’t her idea,” said Zsolt Jozsa, proprietor of the pub in Bicske, a few steps from the care home. “It tells you a lot about Orban, who has posed as a protector of our kids.”

While the premier has condemned the events at Bicske as “simply unacceptable” and something that “cannot happen in a decent country like Hungary”, neither he nor his party have explained the reasons for the pardon.

A March survey by pollster Median shows two-thirds of Hungarians, including a fifth of his own voters, believe Orban had known about the pardon and therefore was responsible for it. Although it is still far ahead of other parties, Fidesz has lost more than 10 per cent of its supporters, Median wrote.

It is a simple word, but those who should are unable and unworthy to say it. So I will say it for them: We are sorry

—  Budapest’s mayor Gergely Karacsony, regarding sexual abuse

In Bicske, where the premier has often been seen out and about and many people know his family, Fidesz voters are defensive. Some Orban supporters deny the crime took place – despite the court verdicts.

“We just wish this whole thing washed over already,” said a pensioner named Marika, who lives across the road from the gilded iron gates of the orphanage.

Locals remember ties between the prime minister’s innermost circle and Vasarhelyi and Konya. Hungarian media have reported extensively about those connections, which the Financial Times has verified.

A wrestling club founded by Orban’s brother held regular training sessions at the orphanage, according to the Hungarian social services’ website.

Bicske orphans also participated in a football academy founded by the premier in his hometown, Felcsút, where Konya and Vasarhelyi were often seen accompanying the children, according to the academy’s website.

National election records show Vasarhelyi was elected as a local councillor in Bicske in 2002 on behalf of a political grouping that had Fidesz’s backing.

That year, according to a video unearthed in February by a local news website, Orban, at the time in opposition, personally campaigned in Bicske alongside Vasarhelyi. “I’m glad to come here, after all Felcsút is just a short hop away,” a young-looking Orban says on the grainy VHS recording.

“It seems you have found very serious candidates who have earned the respect of the public with their life before politics... Everyone should knock on a dozen doors and tell people, please support the candidates sitting behind me,” he says, while on the same stage as Vasarhelyi.

In 2016, when Orban was back in office as prime minister, he put Vasarhelyi’s name forward for the Hungarian Bronze Cross of Merit. The country’s president later awarded the medal to the orphanage director “in recognition of his exemplary dedication to the education of underprivileged children and their preparation for independent life”, according to the Hungarian official journal.

The award came despite an ombudsman’s report in 2012 examining the inquiry against Vasarhelyi – including complaints as far back as 2007 – which was reviewed by the FT.

Dániel Molnár, a liberal opposition member of the Bicske city council, said he spent several summers in his youth at the orphanage, which set up holiday camps for local children.

“This area is where Orban’s relatives and friends live and where their business interests are rooted,” he said, adding that the convicted men, Vasarhelyi and Konya, “have connections to Fidesz”.

Konya has returned to his home in Bicske since he was pardoned.

The FT has tried several times to speak to him. His wife eventually came to the door and when she heard the first question, she turned away, saying: “Goodbye.”

“It is a simple word, but those who should are unable and unworthy to say it. So I will say it for them: We are sorry,” said Budapest’s mayor Gergely Karacsony, whose office was in charge of the care home at the time when the abuse took place.

Karacsony, an opposition politician, was elected after the perpetrators were jailed and the care home was no longer under his purview, but he ordered a review of the case.

“Now is the time to establish political responsibility,” he said. The city’s previous, Fidesz-backed, mayoral office had received first reports of the abuse happening in Bicske in 2011, he said, but it took five more years before Vasarhelyi was removed.

“Such things can never happen again in Hungary,” Karacsony said. “This is up to all of us, first of all the government.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here