Over the last two days the Hungarian media has widely reported a story, more than ten years old, about a monk-poet-teacher at the famous Benedictine Gymnasium, a boarding school for boys, in picturesque Pannonhalma. Although little has become public, the monk in question is no longer a member of the Benedictine order. An internal investigative committee, after a seven-month probe, came to the conclusion that the learned father had behaved in an inappropriate manner with the boys under his care.
Is this case even worth mentioning here? After all, in the last couple of decades we had one report after another about priests who were involved in illicit sexual relations with their young students. There were numerous instances in the United States, Canada, Belgium, Austria, Norway, Ireland, even Poland. But not in Hungary. This case is a first, hence the great public interest.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that the sexual proclivities of Hungarian priests is radically different from those in other countries. The suspicion is that the Hungarian Catholic Church made it its business to cover up all stories that surfaced about sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests or monks. László Szily, the blogger of cink.hu, related a story that happened in his own school, the famous Budapest Piarist High School, where his priest math teacher during a school outing joined one of his students in bed and began patting him. The boy had the good sense to report the incident to his parents, who complained. The good father was removed from the Budapest school only to show up a year or so later in Kecskemét.
I suspect that the only reason the Pannonhalma case wasn’t covered up is the special status of the Benedictine Pannonhalma Arch-Abbey, which is not subordinate to the Hungarian Catholic Church but functions under the jurisdiction of the Vatican itself. This is, by the way, true of all the abbeys that belong to the Benedictine Federation of Congregations under the leadership of an abbot primate. The Hungarian arch-abbot, Asztrik Várszegi, has the reputation of being a liberal churchman. Practically the only one in Hungary.
Each class in Pannonhalma, just like in other Hungarian schools, has a homeroom teacher. In addition, there is another monk called “the prefect” who is in charge of members of the class outside of school. At the time in question, however, there were not enough monks in residence, and therefore some of the children had our man as both their homeroom teacher and their prefect.
Most of his former students complained less about sexual molestation than about the psychological pressure he exerted. Some of them called it psychological terror. He divided his class into those whom he liked and cared about and those who were not his favorites, whom he ignored. He gathered around himself a small group of students, a kind of elite guard, from whom he demanded total devotion. For example, he explained to them that if they don’t love him, later in life they will be incapable of loving any other human being.
Since he was an excellent, demanding teacher, his students did exceedingly well academically and therefore, according to some former students, complaints about him were ignored.
It is hard to believe, as some of the students claimed, that the teacher’s “touching of the students didn’t have any sexual content.” Well, I don’t know how else to explain the following story told by one of the students. “After turning off the light at bedtime, he used to sit down on the beds of his favorites. He embraced them and occasionally he reached into their pajamas.”
A former student recounted the following, which reveals a lot about the naiveté of the victims and the psyche of the teacher:
I remember that in grade twelve I went to the father and asked him to tell me whether I said anything that offended him because he always behaved strangely toward me…. He called me into his room to talk the matter over and he brought up an old story from two years before when I called him gay in the common bedroom. I hardly remembered the story but it seems that it must have gotten back to him. I didn’t seriously think that he was gay, it was just a kind of childish stupidity. However, what remained with me was how damaged this man must be to carry with him for two solid years the silly jest of a sixteen-year-old.
One probably ought not be surprised by such stories. Pannonhalma is a community tucked away on a hill, separated from the rest of civilization. There are 300 boys between the ages of 12 and 18, supervised by monks. The boys are sent by parents who believe in the superiority of the school and who perhaps think that if their son lives away from home in a strict environment the experience will mold his character in a beneficial way. Especially in the first couple of years they most likely miss their family, but eventually they form a kind of family of their own within the walls of the monastery. They live in a hothouse atmosphere, which might not be the healthiest. It is exactly the kind of place which breeds relationships such as the one this man developed with his students.
Of course, it’s not just religious schools, nor schools that are geographically isolated, that are guilty in this regard. Just witness the continuing uproar over the sexual abuse that went on for years at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York. Victims are often either too naive or too cowed by their abuser to report offenses and, when they do report, authorities are usually reluctant to act on the information. They have too great a stake in defending their institution.
At least the administration at Pannonhalma acted decisively, however belatedly. The Hungarian Catholic Church never has. And we all know it’s not because it has never had cause to act.