A special criminal trial has begun in the Pest Central District Court. The accused man, now 35 years old, was sexually molested by his priest several times since the age of 13. This counts as a crime, and amounts to sexual violence against a child. Yet the Catholic priest remained unpunished under secular criminal law. Meanwhile, Attila Pető, the former victim, is now being threatened by criminal sanction
Attila Pető did not receive any help from his church or the state – neither as a child nor as an adult. He was left alone with his shame and fears. He had to take more and more risks and sacrifices in order to first relocate his former assailant, and then have him dismissed from his clerical state many years later. The perseverance of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s client also contributed to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church has finally started to take priestly paedophilia and the protection of child victims more seriously.
Attila Pető’s difficult journey began in 1999 at the age of 13. His parents divorced when he was a child, and he and his brothers were raised by their single mother. Conversations with Father Balázs, who worked in the parish, meant a lot to the little boy. However, Father Balázs molested him several times during this period. Pető was unable to talk about this with anyone for years until at the age of 17 he spoke with one of his teachers. But neither the parish priest, who was the superior of Father Balázs and a father-figure for Attila, nor his teachers accompanied him to make a report to the Church authorities. He had to state his grievance to the distrustful adults alone.
Nothing happened. Following his complaint, no one sought out or informed the young Pető about the procedure. There are strong indications that the case was not fairly investigated. Father Balázs continued his work as a priest. Understandably, this greatly disappointed Attila Pető, and he tried to forget what had happened. He was later upset when the Hungarian Catholic media reported that priest molestation cases only occur rarely in Hungary, and if they did happen, they could not be blamed on the Church.
Therefore, in 2015, he decided to do his best not to be left with the consequences for the harm he suffered. He came to this decision not only because of himself, but also to protect the children who attracted Father Balázs’ attention.
Attila Pető made another report to the Church about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. He repeatedly tried to discover at higher and higher levels how the investigation proceeding and what decisions had been made. Beyond belief, it seemed to him that little had happened for years. He was not informed about the progress of the investigation, did not receive psychological or other help, and Father Balázs was still allowed near children.
It is true that in 2016, the priest was banned from practicing the priesthood for ten years. However, this was not communicated to Attila Pető until the summer of 2019. More importantly, however, the former abuser was still allowed for years to organise and lead camps, gatherings and lectures for deeply impoverished children coming from children’s homes not only in Hungary, but also from the neighbouring countries. In all, more than 600 children attended the camps.
Attila Pető repeatedly contacted the Church authorities to inquire about the state of the investigation. But they never really talked to him. Instead, the head of the church investigation together with his former parish priest reported him to the police for harassment after they received a number of text messages and phone calls from him which they declined to answer. On 20 August 2019, police officers arrived at his home, handcuffed him, and detained him for 6 hours without any legitimate reason.
It was an absurd way for the police to act.
The birth of the charge
Church leaders may have only wanted to alarm and keep the desperate young man away from the most famous Hungarian Catholic holiday, the annual procession in Budapest celebrating the holy relic of St. Stephen’s right hand. But the case has outgrown itself. Although the investigation launched in the summer of 2019 was terminated by the police, the Prosecutor wanted to reprimand Attila Pető and the Prosecutor’s Office reopened the case in March 2020.
However, because he said he had not committed any crime, Pető did not accept the Prosecutor’s ‘offer’ that if he plead guilty he would escape criminal proceedings and just face a mild sanction. Thus, he was indicted by the prosecution in July 2020.
He wants to prove his innocence in court.
Charges of harassment
The Prosecutor’s Office is now accusing the client of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee of harassment for the text messages and phone calls Pető made to inquire about the progress of the investigation into his complaint. The indictment also includes charges that he twice sought out his former father figure priest, who has in the meantime become a bishop, in person, and several times telephoned him. According to the Prosecutor, it was also a crime that Pető sent two e-mails requesting an investigation into the proceedings that were being kept under strict official secrecy. The indictment also reprimands the former victim of priestly paedophilia for twice placing leaflets in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest.
By not accepting the Prosecutor’s reprimand, Pető is now risking punishment.
In the dock
‘It is an immeasurable injustice that Attila Pető must stand before the court, that he was taken in handcuffs on the basis of complaints to police by those who were idle when they should have protected the victims and established appropriate procedures to support the children’, commented Borbála Ivány, Attila Pető’s lawyer from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.
The clients of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee are in all cases the victims of power – mostly state violations and arbitrariness. This is also the case here. In addition, our client had been exemplary and courageous as a child. Although both his church and the State did their best to remain silent and bury his injuries and pain, he refused to do so. Thus, we are undertaking to protect the man otherwise left alone to face the power of the State and Church in the criminal lawsuit against him.
‘As a child, I was a victim of sexual abuse that I hadn’t talked about at all or had a hard time talking about for years. When I wanted there to be consequences, I didn’t get help from the people I looked up to and trusted. The priest I loved as my father let me down. The hurt and disappointment prompted me to fight so that this priest would not reach into the underpants of other children and humiliate those who asked him for help. Throughout, I have tried to achieve this goal with respect, fairness, and without criminal, unlawful means. I am a deeply religious, God-fearing person for whom church is important, as is its renewal, and that its superiors hear the voices of those who are vulnerable, desperate, and ask for help’, our client recounts the last 22 difficult years.