Tag Archives: Judit Szemkeö

The rise and fall of Mária Erdő, sister of the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church

What follows is an incredible story but I have the feeling not a unique one. It is about the rector of the Apor Vilmos Katolikus Főiskola (Vilmos Apor Catholic College/AVKF) in Vác, a teachers college whose main function is the training of elementary school and kindergarten teachers. Miklós Beér, bishop of Vác, has the misfortune of being in charge of this institution, which has had its shares of scandals over the last 15 years. The original home of this teachers college was Zsámbék, where it was under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Székesfehérvár, but in 2003 more than half of the building housing the college burned down and the decision was made to move the institution to Vác.

Why Vác? Because Vác had a very large building that could house the teachers college of Zsámbék. The building had originally served as the local state high school, but once it was given back to the Church, a brand new building was erected for those who didn’t want to attend a parochial school. So, the Church used it as a novitiate where at one time only 26 novices were housed. The final move from Zsámbék to Vác took place in 2004.

With the move came a new rector, Judit Szemkeö, who for a while was undersecretary in the Ministry of Education in the first Orbán government but apparently was let go before her appointment would have expired in 2002. In any case, she needed a job, and Fidesz, which usually takes care of its own, convinced the Bishop of Vác to appoint her as the new rector. Apparently, she immediately began “the methodical destruction of the institution,” starting with the wholesale firing of staff. According to the law, a rector must have a Ph.D., which Szemkeö didn’t have, and therefore she was “demoted” on paper. The Church came up with a number of priests with Ph.D.s who, one after another, were given the title of rector, but in fact it was Szemkeö who ran the show from the background. This was the situation until 2011 when Mária Erdő, the sister of Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, joined the faculty as an assistant professor. Her modest status changed within a couple of months when, to everybody’s surprise, she was named rector of AVKF.

Vilmos Apor Catholic College, Vác

The reason for Erdő’s delayed appointment was also her lack of a Ph.D. We don’t know all the details of her academic career. She most likely finished a three-year teachers college somewhere because for a while she taught as an elementary school teacher (tanító). Then, in 1989, she graduated with a degree in pedagogy from the University of Szeged. When it came to pursuing the Ph.D., she went to Katolícka univerzita v Ružomberku in northern Slovakia. This university has been in existence since 1995 in Ružomberok/Rózsahegy. It has four faculties: pedagogy, philosophy, theology, and health. A strange choice, I must say.

As for her dissertation, we don’t know in what language it was written. The professor who was the reader of the dissertation was a Pole, Jan Zimmy, who teaches at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. He referred to the title of the dissertation, in Slovak, as Mediálna kultúra – nové moznosti katolíckej vychovy a vzdelávania. We know that Erdő doesn’t speak Slovak. One person suggested that she may have defended her thesis in English. According to eyewitnesses, however, Erdő, although she claims to know both English and Russian, required the assistance of an interpreter every time she encountered foreign visitors to the college.

The dissertation was, it seems, basically plagiarized. A former psychology professor, who had lost her job at AVKF, read it and wrote a letter to both Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, and László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In her letter she claimed that she had acquired a copy of the dissertation and had come to the conclusion that Erdő’s academic title should be withdrawn because “she used falsified data designed to mislead” the granting authority. She asserted that the dissertation was basically a copy of a book that had been published in 2002. In 47 instances Erdő changed the publication dates of her sources in order to give the impression of recent research. These are serious charges, yet János Áder, on the recommendation of Zoltán Balog, bestowed a high state decoration on Mária Erdő “in recognition of her work in promoting the interests of the homeland and enhancing universal human values” two years after this fact became known.

That’s bad enough, but what was really distressing was that Mária Erdő almost totally destroyed the institution. She immediately began “restructuring,” which primarily meant staff firings. The atmosphere was such that within two years after her arrival the number of students plummeted. Between 2012 and 2013 the number of students shrank by 52%. Moreover, it turned out that about 60 degrees were granted illegally. Most of her dismissals of faculty members were arbitrary, and several fired faculty members sued the institution. In the last five years—that is, during Erdő’s tenure—the Vác police launched four investigations, but naturally they never found anything worth pursuing. Because of her authoritarian leadership, fear and tension were widespread among the faculty as well as the student body. If someone dared to disagree with one of her decisions, the next day that person couldn’t step inside the building. She also turned the institution into a kind of family business. After she got rid of the IT instructor, she hired her own husband to fill the position. Her daughter was appointed to head the office of the rector.

One more interesting piece of information about Mária Erdő. One of her former students said that when she was a lowly instructor she was so timid that “she would have even apologized to the threshold for tripping on it.” But as soon as she became a person of power and importance she became a tyrant.

She is the author of four textbooks on the teaching of religion and the general editor of 24 textbooks published and sold by the Catholic Church’s Szent István Társulat, a publishing company. In December 2012 Mária Erdő first appeared in the media when someone discovered that in her grade 4 textbook she was telling children that “homosexuality means a sexual relation between people of the same sex, which is a grave and mortal sin.” Admittedly, this is the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, but critics argued that instilling homophobia at an early age is inappropriate, especially in light of Pope Francis’s more lenient words on the subject. She also insisted that “even if a child chooses ethics instead of religion, that still should be taught in a spirit not far from the Catholic Church’s views.”

Well, this year Mária Erdő finally lost her job. The Vác Bishopric announced at the end of January that her tenure would expire on July 31 but that due to health issues she would be going on paid leave immediately. The statement said that “there is not and never was any infringement procedure against her.” Surely, one cannot touch the sister of the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church. However, Miklós Beér’s patience must have run out when, at the beginning of January, the secretariat of the office of the rector, without the knowledge of the bishopric, announced a new tender for the post of the head of the institution. Erdő most likely was trying to remain in her post through this back door. Once Bishop Beér learned about this ruse, he withdrew the illegally declared tender and removed her from the premises five months before the end of her tenure.

I wonder where Mária Erdő will end up after this fiasco. I’m sure she will receive a cushy job somewhere, where she can continue her destructive and poisonous activities. Fidesz is generous to its own. Of course, it is also possible that she will get a full time job at the Szent István Társulat, whose sponsor is Cardinal Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, who just happens to be her brother.

August 23, 2017