Thousands of cases of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests have in recent years shaken the Church to its foundations as it sought to crack down on centuries of misconduct while simultaneously managing the fallout with a centuries-old tradition of secrecy. As the scope of the problem became more well known after the beginning of this century, priests and Catholic dioceses across the world were forced to reckon with their acts of abuse and abetment, a process that ultimately rose to the highest levels of the Church's power in the Vatican.
But in Hungary, the sexual abuse of children by clergymen remained mostly obscured by denial as local church leaders refused to confront the problem, even as dozens of victims came forward seeking redress and demanding action be taken to prevent future abuse. While many of these victims pushed valiantly and quietly for justice and reform, not one has ever spoken publicly about their experiences using their names.
But that changed this week when Attila Pető appeared in an interview on Partizán - a politics and culture show on YouTube - openly detailing his own abuse at the hands of his priest, and the hurdles placed in his way on his path toward justice.
Pető’s decision to tell his story publicly came after years of struggle to bring his abuser to account, and to be acknowledged by the Hungarian Catholic church's hierarchy. While the Church, more than a decade later, finally took steps to remove his abuser from the priesthood, it came at the cost of clergy members launching criminal proceedings against Pető - leading to his arrest - in response to his demands for answers.
444's Péter Urfi has written more than any other Hungarian journalist on sexual abuse within the Hungarian Catholic church, resulting in an ongoing series of long-form articles on the topic. This article draws on two years of his reporting.
The story of Attila Pető's sexual abuse will go down as the most public case of clerical sexual abuse to date in Hungary, but it is only one among an untold number.
Sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Hungary has not been well documented, especially in the period prior to the breakup of the Eastern Bloc: before 1990, there are almost no documented cases of sexual abuse by Hungarian priests, largely due to that period's lack of independent courts or a genuine press, and to the church's longstanding efforts to keep such cases quiet.
But two cases of abuse by Hungarian priests during the Communist period have been brought to light, not in Hungary, but in the United States. Sándor Pintér and András Eördögh, two priests that emigrated to North America in the 1940s and 1950s respectively, were accused of sexual molestation by young boys and placed on lists of accused clergy.
In both cases, the church dealt with the accused priests in a fashion that would later be shown to be a systematic means of shielding them, and itself, from accountability - relocating them to distant dioceses where they were unknown to parishioners and could not face their accusers.
After Pintér was accused of molestation, the church removed him from his parish in Toledo, Ohio and sent him to a Catholic treatment center in Canada. He was later allowed to return to Ohio, but was ultimately sent to Southern California where he was accused of molesting another underaged boy.
Similarly, Eördögh, who began his priesthood in Canada, served in several parishes in the Fairbanks diocese of Alaska, a state an attorney for several Alaska Native abuse victims called a "pedophile's paradise." The Catholic church was accused of using the state's small, remote villages as a "dumping ground" for child-molesting priests that preyed on poor indigenous children, and Eördögh was involved in that statewide scandal.
The revelation of these abuses by Hungarian priests abroad reflected a growing awareness of the problem in North America at the time. Despite the paucity of information on abuse within the Hungarian church before 1990, the systemic scope of the problem elsewhere in the world came into increasing focus beginning in the 1980s, culminating in the publication in 2002 of a groundbreaking investigation of sexual abuse within the Boston archdiocese by The Boston Globe.
The John Jay report, a 2004 study commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the wake of the scandal in Boston, found nearly 7,000 accusations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy between 1950 and 2002. According to the American Episcopal Conference, 6,846 priests have been charged with sexual abuse of minors since 1950, about 6 percent of the priests active during the period.
The Australian government in 2015 established a royal commission to examine the church's response to sexual abuse, which found that 4,444 minors had made accusations against clergy between 1980 and 2015, affecting 7 percent of all clergy.
The Hungarian church, unlike in the United States and Australia, has not initiated a formal investigation into the problem, so only the efforts of Hungarian journalists to determine its possible scope have produced traces of information. The Hungarian Prosecutor's Office would not answer inquiries from 444 journalist Péter Urfi about past cases, but he was able to gather some information from different religious orders.
"The Hungarian bishops have chosen the path of silence so far, but there were a few important exceptions, such as the Benedictine Friars and the Piarist Order," Urfi said. "However, the 10 to 20 harassment cases that came to light did not provoke immense public outrage, partly because until this week there was not one victim that stood up with their name and face to tell their stories. The dismissive attitude of the Hungarian bishops led some victims to turn to the media anonymously, while simultaneously discouraging many from announcing their abuser to the Church."
According to media reports and some of these sources within the Church, in the past 20 to 30 years:
- 10 Hungarian priests have been sanctioned after investigations (convicted, expelled, suspended or resigned)
- 11 investigations are either ongoing or their results are unknown
- 3 investigations have resulted in acquittal
- 2 proceedings have been launched against Hungarian priests abroad (the aforementioned Sándor Pintér and András Eördögh)
- 6 proceedings have been launched against non-consecrated church employees
This total of 32 cases of possible sexual abuse by clerics or other employees of the Hungarian Catholic church approaches 1 percent of active clergy, substantially lower than the 6 and 7 percent discovered in the United States and Australia. Secrecy remains the status quo in Hungary, and Urfi says the true number of cases could be far higher.
"Until 2019, when I started my investigations, there was almost total silence," Urfi said. "In the 20 years before 2019 the Church only communicated in brief and short-spoken statements. This is when I tried to contact all the diocesan bishops in Hungary and asked the most important questions about the sex abuse statistics in their diocese. The vast majority didn’t even bother to respond, but some bishops broke the silence and provided me with data. Since in many foreign countries there was an official investigation concerning the sex abuses of the Catholic Church, I asked the Hungarian government if they plan to take any action, but they haven't answered in the last two years."
In February 2019, Pope Francis convened a four-day summit in the Vatican to discuss the prevention of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic Church clergy. In attendance was Bishop András Veres, the president of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops Conference and chief pastor of the diocese of Győr.
While an entire day of the conference was devoted to pushing for increased transparency and an end to the deliberate suppression of abuse allegations, Veres told liberal daily Népszava only two months later that "we're not hiding anything, because there's no reason to."
"We have probably had less abuse than in other countries. I see Hungarian people and Hungarian culture as child- and family-friendly, which prevents crimes of this type,” said Veres, who acknowledged that he was unaware of how many accusations of sexual abuse had been made in Hungary in recent years, and that he knew no details of any of them.
Veres also suggested that child sexual abuse was more common in Western countries because their societies are "more liberal." (One of the Pope's most important advisers, Father Hans Zollner, has openly expressed frustration with bishops who insist the problem doesn’t exist in their countries. “It is even more surprising if you listen to that from people who should know better because they have cases,” he has said. “And if you don’t have cases now, it’s because people haven’t started to speak about it.”)
While the Hungarian Church, at least publicly, does not keep detailed records of abuse or seek to uncover them, some victims have spoken anonymously to the media.
One man detailed years of abuse by his priest when he was an adolescent in Baranya County, a trauma which filled him with guilt and fear for decades before he sought psychological help. While he knew that the priest, who was still active, could continue abusing other minors, he didn't know where to turn: until 2019, following a mandate from the Vatican, the Hungarian church did not have a hotline or website where victims could report abuse.
Other cases of sexual abuse by clergy in Hungary were characterized by the Church's practice of allowing offending priests to continue serving, a sort of forgiveness for their sins. In 2003, one diocesan bishop put it this way:
"If any suspicion (of abuse) is raised, I would first speak with the priest. If he stumbled only once, he could continue his service, but if more such instances occur, he should be pulled out of circulation."
This is what happened with "Priest Antal," who as a teacher at a Piarist school in Budapest was accused of molesting young boys. He was then sent to a school in the countryside, where similar allegations followed. The Piarist Order - which has since taken active efforts to prevent abuse and reach out to victims, and provided Urfi with important information during interviews - initiated proceedings against Priest Antal and recommended that he be assigned to care for the elderly. But he asked to be transferred into diocesan service, and was able to serve as a priest in southern Hungary for the next three decades. (Priest Antal died in 2020.)
In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued the Catholic Church's first formal apology to the victims of sexual abuse by its priests. Since then, successive popes and bishops across the world have followed this example.
In 2019, 18 years after John Paul II's apology, the Hungarian Conference of Bishops issued a statement to victims expressing its sympathy and regret, and apologizing "in place of the perpetrators."
"I'm Attila Pető, I'm 35 years old, and I'm here to encourage young people who, I hope, will stand up publicly and tell their stories."
This is how Pető began his interview on Partizán on Tuesday, where he described years of molestation by his priest when he was a teenager. In 2003, he reported the abuse to the church and gave a detailed statement to representatives of the archdiocese, but no report was taken, and the case was swept aside after the priest denied the claims.
In 2015, after reading about similar cases of abuse by a priest at an abbey in Pannonhalma, Pető went to the diocese again where he recounted the abuse he had suffered as a teenager. Church leaders referred him to four psychologists for observation, all connected to the Church, but ultimately initiated an investigation into the priest which turned up more of the priest's victims. The priest was suspended from service for ten years.
In 2016, after an article in Index recounted Pető's story without using his name, around a dozen more of the priest’s victims came forward, and he was defrocked by Pope Francis at the end of the year.
More than 13 years after Pető made his first complaint, the priest had finally been held to account by the Church. But Pető was disturbed by the opaqueness of the process, and said he felt humiliated by the interrogations and psychological evaluations he'd had to endure. He repeatedly tried to meet with Cardinal Péter Erdő, the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, to express his concerns and seek closure for his experience, but was never given an appointment.
"The reason I couldn't calm down after the defrocking was that they didn't acknowledge the truth," he said. "I never got any official document saying that I had been in the office, that I had filed a report, what the result of the investigation was, whether I was a victim, whether they believed me...They didn't apologize...I found it very important that the Church make a gesture, like it did in Poland, but in Hungary they did nothing like that. They even gave statements that such things don't happen here at all, or only in negligible numbers."
In summer of 2019, after Pető had continued seeking appointments with Cardinal Erdő, two of the Cardinals' closest deputies, priests György Snell and László Süllei, filed harassment charges against him. The charges alleged that Pető had made repeated phone calls and sent emails and text messages to the priests in an effort to get a meeting with Cardinal Erdő, and had attempted to visit Snell at his parish, but was not allowed to enter.
As Urfi notes, this is perhaps the only case in the world where high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church have filed criminal charges against a victim of sexual abuse. The charges state that they were made "on behalf and in the name of the archdiocese," which is led by Cardinal Erdő.
On the morning of August 20, 2019, as Hungary was celebrating St. Stephen's Day, Pető was approached by five policemen outside his apartment in Budapest and taken to a district police station, where he was held for three hours. He was later taken in handcuffs and on a lead to the Budapest Metropolitan Office where he was questioned for several hours more.
Pető was released at 7 p.m., the very moment Cardinal Péter Erdő finished giving a special mass on the national holiday in the presence of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President János Áder.
The police later dropped their investigation of Pető for lack of evidence of a crime, but he is still being charged by the Prosecutor's Office. Urfi says the timing of his detention on the national holiday raises questions over whether it was related to Cardinal Erdő's mass.
"For some observers it's clearly more than a coincidence that this police action took place on this special day, because Pető wrote church officials weeks before that he was considering making a short speech at the end of one of the Cardinal’s masses," Urfi said, adding that Pető later decided against going through with the plan.
"I’ve sent questions about the highly unusual procedure to the police, to the prosecutor’s office and to the ombudsman without receiving meaningful answers," Urfi continued. "Pető even inquired at TEK, the Counter Terrorism Centre, because Cardinal Erdő implied in an interview that the Church had reported the danger of Pető showing up on the 20th of August. The anti-terrorism squad responsible for the safety of Viktor Orbán responded that they don’t have any data on Pető."
Pető is fighting the charges against him in court, unwilling to admit guilt in exchange for a more minor charge. Meanwhile, during an interview in January, Cardinal Erdő referenced the sexual abuse of children by Hungarian priests for the first time, and mentioned Pető's case.
"He started a process which later spread to others, and ultimately resulted in a solution to the situation: the dismissal of the priest from Church service and the priesthood. In this regard, we owe this person our thanks," Erdő said.
While the charges against Pető were filed by Erdő's deputies on behalf of the Church, Erdő said that the case in progress is "not a debate between him and the diocese."
On Thursday, Auxiliary Bishop György Snell, whom Pető had loved as a father in his youth and who later filed charges against him for harassment, died of complications arising from Covid-19 infection.