Hungarian government to tighten child protection rules

The government will also set stricter requirements for the appointment of the heads of child protection institutions.

Gergely Gulyás, Head of the Prime Minister's Office, said the government has decided to set stricter requirements for the appointment of the heads of child protection institutions and will review and tighten child protection rules.

Gulyás told a government press briefing that President Katalin Novák and former justice minister Judit Varga had taken responsibility for the clemency case of the former deputy head of the Bicske children’s home “in exemplary fashion”. He noted that Wednesday’s cabinet meeting had been the first since Novák and Varga’s resignations, and the first chance for the government to draw the political conclusions from the case that had defined Hungarian public life in the last two weeks. Gulyás said the government had placed “a uniquely high emphasis” on supporting families and protecting children over the last 14 years. He said the left wing had not supported the family tax preferences, the CSOK home purchase subsidy schemes, the child protection law or the anti-paedophile law. The government supported families “more than anyone else” by introducing measures such as home purchase subsidies and tax cuts for families raising children, and PIT exemptions for women raising four or more children, he said. The ruling parties’ majority in parliament adopted the strictest child protection law in Europe and tightened the Penal Code’s provisions on paedophilia, he said. They created a register of paedophile offenders so the authorities can monitor them once they have served their sentence. Further, “the government protected the stringent child protection law in a referendum, too.” He said Novák had achieved more than anyone else in the interest of family policy after 2014, and highlighted Varga’s role in tightening the Penal Code and approving the family protection law. It was understandable, he added, that the majority of Hungarian society had been baffled by the presidential pardon. But “inevitably” the president and the former justice minister had had to take responsibility and had done so “in exemplary fashion”, he added.

Gulyás said the government was focused on the future. In addition to a constitutional amendment proposal filed by the prime minister to prevent a pardon from being granted to perpetrators of crimes committed against minors, the government will set stricter conditions for the appointment of the heads of child protection institutions, and child protection laws, too, must be reviewed, he said. After the “issue of the presidential pardon”, the prime minister submitted an amendment to the Fundamental Law to ensure “there is no mercy” for those committing crimes against minors, he said. In addition to the stricter regulations introduced in 2017, the government now wants to introduce a psychological evaluation, expansive vetting and a comprehensive assessment of a candidate’s trustworthiness before appointing leaders to such positions, he said. Child protection regulations must also be reviewed, and stricter yet “sensible” measures introduced, he added. Gulyás said people who had “attacked child protection measures up to now” were now “styling themselves as their apostles”, so an opportunity had arisen to form a consensus on issues that had divided the left and the right.

Parliament must accept the president’s resignation, Gulyás said. “That will happen on February 26.” The new president then must be elected within 30 days. Candidates must be backed by one-fifth of MPs to be eligible, he said. Regarding proposals that presidents should be elected directly by voters in Hungary, Gulyás said the procedure “will definitely not change”. The procedure of presidential elections is enshrined in the constitution, and presidents have been elected accordingly since 1990, he added. “The left-wing only has problems with electoral procedures when they are not in a majority in parliament,” Gulyás said. Asked whether the government was planning to investigate who had put forward the names of the former director of the Bicske children’s home and his deputy for state awards, he said such an investigation “has already been conducted, mostly with the help of the press”. The awards were handed out before their crimes had come to light, he said. Former Budapest mayor István Tarlós proposed that the awards be withdrawn, he added. Incumbent mayor Gergely Karácsony also voted for the awards, Gulyás said, adding that “no mayor or city assembly can be expected to visit every single Budapest institution personally”. “The mistake must have been made at the social affairs department, by those who made the recommendation.”

Asked whether Reformed Church Bishop Zoltán Balog should also resign, Gulyas said the government “does not have an opinion on the internal affairs of the Reformed Church. We can, of course, have a debate about the counsel given … but the responsibility belongs to those making decisions, and Katalin Novák, who made this decision, has resigned.” Asked if the government considered the matter closed, Gulyás said that “given that everything that could happen has” and the president and the former justice minister have resigned, they considered it closed, but a new president had to be elected and child protection regulations had to be tightened. He said he would be open to making clemency procedures public, adding that no matter who the next president will be, they will certainly consider all of their decisions to be public. This, he added, was another argument in favour of making the decisions fully public.

In response to another question, Gulyás said Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and he himself had found out about the pardon granted to the children’s home deputy director Endre K. from the press, adding that neither Novák nor Zoltán Balog had consulted with the prime minister. Gulyás said he did not know whether any member of the government had asked Novák about the reason of the pardon. He said the former justice minister was, too, “being made a target for criticism by everyone” for countersigning the pardon even though the justice minister had always countersigned every presidential pardon over the past 25 years regardless of whether it was the right or the left in power. Answering another question, Gulyás said President Novák had made the right decision when she pardoned radical activist György Budaházy, arguing that that case “had clear pros and cons”, whereas he believed this current one “only has cons”. Gulyás said he knew whether Varga had supported or opposed the clemency request when she submitted it to the presidential Sándor Palace, but did not want to disclose it, as he did not want to give any more statements on the matter after the resignations. He noted that both the president and the former justice minister had apologised to the victims.

Asked what his message was for the children of the Bicske orphanage who were abused, Gulyás said the government believed the current child protection law needed to be made even stricter. “To the victims, we say that we sympathise with them, and we would like to help everyone we can,” he said. Asked about a proposal on the chemical castration of paedophiles, Gulyás said the government had not taken a position on this, adding that he believed any decision on possible punishments for child abuse needed to be thought over carefully. He said the sexual abuse of children was “without a doubt the most serious offence”, so not even the most stringent proposals should be ruled out immediately, but human dignity was a fundamental principle of Hungary’s constitutionality.