Tag Archives: Benedictine Gymnasium of Pannonhalma

A success story: The sole Roma student at the Benedictine Gymnasium of Pannonhalma

Let’s stay with the topic of the Roma minority but this time from an entirely different, more upbeat perspective. Today I’m profiling a remarkable young man who comes from a village called Hencida in Hajdú-Bihar County, population 1,200, who will graduate this year from the famous Benedictine gymnasium in Pannonhalma. After graduation he will spend a year at a French university to perfect his knowledge of the language.

This is a remarkable achievement in and of itself for at least two reasons. One is that the percentage of Roma high school graduates is still very small, although the numbers have improved since 1990 when only 1.5% of Gypsies had a high school diploma. Today it is 3.4%. The other reason is that a fourteen-year-old boy, coming from unimaginable poverty, managed to adjust to and succeed in a world that had to be utterly alien to him. That is quite a feat. I have met young men and women who, encountering similar challenges, were unable to face the difficulties and turned their backs on the great opportunities that were being offered to them.

Yes, the difficulties. First of all, this particular gymnasium is a fairly tough one. It is an all-male boarding school where students can visit their parents only once a month. And there is not much time for such travel because Saturdays are still school days in Pannonhalma. Second, although children of modest means are eligible for financial assistance, most of the parents must pay about 590,000 forints ($2,000) a year for room and board. Third, in the last 15 years the gymnasium has accepted only four Roma students, of whom only two finished the four-year program of study in Pannonhalma. At the moment, the young man from Hencida, whose name is István Ötvös and whom everybody calls Pisti, is the sole representative of the Roma minority in the school.

I encountered Pisti’s story in Abcúg, an internet site specializing in the Hungarian countryside and paying a lot of attention to the problems of the Roma minority. From the story it becomes clear that the school administration is not itself engaged in trying to attract talented minority children but relies on the very few people who are active in assisting the Roma population. One of these people is Nóra L. Ritók, the director of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány (Real Pearl Foundation). Pisti can thank Nóra Ritók, who got in touch with Father Titusz Hardi, the principal at Pannonhalma, for his good fortune.

According to the census, 7% of Hencida’s population is Roma, but I suspect that their number is much higher than this official figure would indicate because relatively few Hungarian Roma register themselves as such. The school Pisti went to was a segregated school. He was an excellent student there, but once he got to Pannonhalma the shortcomings of his education became apparent. He had serious academic difficulties in his first year and just barely passed math. By now, however, he has a solid B average.

Here is Pisti’s story. His parents divorced when he was eight. He and two of his younger siblings remained with his mother, who subsequently remarried and had another child. Three years later his mother died and his stepfather’s illiterate parents took the orphans in. Pisti, who is quite artistic, ended up attending the Real Pearl Foundation’s art school, where he impressed Nóra Ritók. As the reporter says, “with the help of the Foundation a new world opened” for the boy. He even had the opportunity to travel to Portugal for an artistic tour while he was still in elementary school.

Pisti (R) with his roommate Máté (L) from Budapest

This is how Pisti describes his life in Hencida. “I didn’t really like home. I yearned to get away. I wanted something new. I wanted to study. I didn’t want the fate of my former classmates. By now most of them are on public work and some of them already have children. A couple of my elementary school classmates are in prison. I didn’t want this kind of life. I wanted to learn and to live a better life than the rest of us at home.” His “parents” were at first reluctant to let him go “because, on the one hand, they were worried about me and, on the other, they didn’t really understand what an opportunity it was to attend such a good gymnasium and get a matriculation certificate. In fact, they still don’t understand.”

Pisti’s new classmates came from a world he knew nothing about. A large majority of the boys at Pannonhalma are the sons of doctors, lawyers, university professors, and high government officials. Yet his social adjustment was apparently quite swift. As he proudly says, after one or two weeks he was already feeling comfortable: “I knew how to behave, politely, like the others.” But this assimilation comes with a price. He no longer feels at home in Hencida. In fact, he rarely visits his “parents” and not just because the village is very far from Pannonhalma and the students don’t have both Saturdays and Sundays off. He often spends even holidays in the school or visits the family of one of his friends. “When I get home, I can’t find my place. I don’t know what to do. I became alienated from my family. I don’t know what to talk with them about.”

This alienation from his family is understandable. The opportunities at Pannonhalma are impressive, and during his stay there he has been immersed in a culture he cannot share with his family at home. On the other hand, he seems to have a close relationship with the principal of the school, who was keeping an eye on him even when he was living in Hencida. It is on the principal’s advice that he will study at a French university for a year.

Pisti gets free room and board. In addition, a foundation that works with disadvantaged Roma communities and individuals gives him 10,000 forints a month. He also has a private benefactor who sends him 20,000 forints every month. This is the money he can use to buy clothes. And, he says, he even manages to put some money aside for his move to Paris.

István Ötvös’s story is unfortunately all too rare in Hungary. It cannot be otherwise as long as the Roma community’s lot is so miserable and, for most, hopeless.

March 14, 2017

Psychological and sexual pressure at the Benedictine gymnasium in Pannonhalma

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.”

Pannonhalma Benedictine Arch-Abbey. A gorgeous place but perhaps not the best place to send your child

Pannonhalma Benedictine Arch-Abbey

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.