Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Gulyas: Government to tighten conditions for appointing child protection officials

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, the head of the Prime Minister's Office said on Friday.

Gergely Gulyas told a government press briefing that President Katalin Novak 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 Novak 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.

Gulyas 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. It also doubled creche places and launched a programme to revamp kindergartens, he added.

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 Novak 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.

Gulyas 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.

Gulyas 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, Gulyas 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, Gulyas 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,” Gulyas 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 Istvan Tarlos proposed that the awards be withdrawn, he added.

Incumbent mayor Gergely Karacsony also voted for the awards, Gulyas 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 Zoltan 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 Novak, who made this decision, has resigned.”

Asked if the government considered the matter closed, Gulyas 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.

“We have acknowledged the president’s and the former justice minister’s decisions,” Gulyas said. He expressed hope that the ruling parties will be able to find a presidential candidate whom the opposition will also support.

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, Gulyas said Prime Minister Viktor Orban 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 Novak nor Zoltan Balog had consulted with the prime minister. Gulyas said he did not know whether any member of government had asked Novak 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, Gulyas said President Novak had made the right decision when she pardoned radical activist Gyorgy Budahazy, arguing that that case “had clear pros and cons”, whereas he believed this current one “only has cons”.

Asked why the prime minister did not comment on Novak’s resignation, Gulyas noted that Viktor Orban will on Saturday deliver his annual speech assessing the state of nation over the past year.

Gulyas said he knew whether Varga had supported or opposed the clemency request when she submitted it to the presidential Sandor 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, Gulyas 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, Gulyas 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.

Asked to comment on Momentum MP Andras Fekete-Gyor’s refusal to resign after a second-instance court this week found him guilty of assault against a police officer at a demonstration in 2018, Gulyas said that while there were always consequences for errors and mistakes on the right, on the left, there were none “for even the gravest sins”.

Asked about a “scandalous” opinion piece posted on Klubradio’s website by its director Andras Arato, Gulyas said he was certain that “Arato, too, should resign from his post”. “And as long as this does not happen, a decent person won’t set foot in Klubradio either as an employee or for the purpose to be interviewed,” Gulyas added. He was also asked about statements made by Peter Magyar, the ex-husband of Judit Varga. Gulyas said he had last spoken with Magyar several months ago “partly because he warned ahead of time that he’d do what he’s doing now should his assignments received from the state be terminated”.

Concerning Zoltan Balog’s potential resignation as president of the Synod of the Reformed Church, he said decisions pertaining to the church’s officials concerned only the Reformed Church.

Asked if he will remain the legal counsel for the church district headed by Balog, Gulyas said: “As long as Zoltan Balog is staying, so am I.” Gulyas said he held Balog in high esteem, respected and trusted him and considered him an excellent bishop. He said it was not true that Orban had summoned Balog over the clemency case.

As regards the planned constitutional amendment, he said it will also apply to crimes similar to the one involved in the clemency case.

Asked about whom ruling Fidesz would nominate to fill Varga’s position to lead the joint EP election list of the governing Fidesz-Christian-Democrat alliance, Gulyas said party MEP Tamas Deutsch would be an “excellent choice”, adding that once taken, the decision will be announced.

Concerning a planned meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Gulyas said it would make sense solely if it yielded tangible results. He noted a meeting that had already taken place between the Hungarian and Ukrainian foreign ministers at which the Hungarian side had made clear on which issues it hoped to make progress. “If there is openness towards such progress then an Orban-Zelensky meeting makes sense,” said Gulyas.

Asked whether Hungary’s parliament will ratify Sweden’s NATO accession bid, Gulyas said “there are ongoing talks with the Swedish government giving hope”. He said that parliament’s decision can also be signed by Laszlo Kover, Hungary’s acting president.

In connection with “the timing” of the approval of the EU’s new migration pact in Brussels earlier this week, Gulyas said “they hurried with it probably because they are afraid of what we in fact hope: that the composition of the next European Parliament will be much more favourable for the right wing, conservative and anti-immigration parties”. “The biggest problem with that pact is in fact not its timing, but the fact that it sets requirements for member states to fulfil which are not obligatory for them to fulfil under their EU accession treaties,” he added.

Commenting on proposed EU sanctions against Israel, Gulyas highlighted the requirement of unanimity for any decision to pass on a foreign policy issue. “Hungary can therefore prevent the formulation of a common EU position on the matter on its own,” he said.

Commenting on recent inflation data, Gulyas said those “are getting close to the below-3 percent rate which is acceptable”. “In a best-case scenario, inflation could next year return to below 3 percent, and it surely will not cause such a problem that it did in the past 2 years,” he said.

On another topic, he expressed hope that Hungarian farmers would join the demonstration planned by their Czech, Polish and Slovak peers next week.

In connection with the issue of financing Hungary’s pension system, Gulyas said “the pension system will be maintained until the mid-2030s”. He said that a government contribution to the system’s financing from central budget resources was possible “without any particular difficulties, even amid moderate economic growth”.

At the press briefing, government spokeswoman Alexandra Szentkiralyi was asked about the Barczy Istvan state award she had presented as deputy Budapest mayor to the former director implicated now in the child abuse case involving the children’s home in Bicske.

Szentkiralyi said she had held “a technical role” in presenting the award which she said she had neither proposed nor approved. “When the municipality of Budapest decided in 2015 about giving the award [to the home’s then director Janos V], a police investigation initiated by the municipality had already been closed declaring Janos V’s innocence,” she said. In that vote in 2015, councillors of the right, as well as of the left supported giving the award to Janos V, including Gergely Karacsony, [who is now the mayor of Budapest], Erzsebet Gy Nemeth and Csaba Horvath, the spokeswoman said. “And when it turned out in 2019, a municipal election year, that Janos V would be sentenced, then mayor Istvan Tarlos pledged to initiate, if re-elected, withdrawing the award,” Szentkiralyi said.

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