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March 9th, 2012
07:50 AM ET

Mormons crack down on proxy baptisms; whistleblower’s access blocked

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

(CNN) - In response to recent media reports that well-known Jewish Holocaust victims and slain Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl were baptized by proxy, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is renewing and revamping efforts to crack down on the practice and, some believe, stop the attention.

The church said this week it had implemented a “new technological barrier” to prevent abuse of its massive genealogical database, parts of which have been used to carry out – as well as expose - proxy baptisms.

"The church is committed to preventing the misguided practice of submitting the names of Holocaust victims and prominent individuals for proxy baptism,” spokesman Michael Purdy said in a written statement.

“Anyone trying to access names that have been restricted will have their account suspended and be required to contact [the church] to establish their family relationship in order to have their access reinstated. Abuse of the system will result in the permanent loss of database access."

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Whistle-blowing ex-Mormon researcher Helen Radkey, who uncovered the proxy baptism records that made headlines recently, says an account she was surreptitiously using to gain access to the database has been blocked.

“I have been effectively stopped,” Radkey told The Salt Lake Tribune. She said the church was “of course” targeting her.

The church, though, says Radkey’s blocked account was part of its effort to stop inappropriate proxy baptisms and not about Radkey.

“It is ironic for someone to claim they are being targeted by the measures we have taken to prevent unauthorized submissions for baptism,” Purdy said. “We are doing exactly what we have been asked to do and what we said we would do - denying access to names that should not be submitted because they are against our policy.”

Purdy said no one by the name of Helen Radkey has an account with the church’s database, known as New FamilySearch.

“If she, or anyone else, is misusing a church member’s identity to search for Holocaust names, then the system is set up to block those kinds of activities. There have been a handful of accounts blocked so far.

“We have said before that no system is foolproof but that we were committed to improving our ability to prevent unauthorized names from being submitted for baptism,” he continued. “To complain about us doing just that is baseless."

Explainer: How and why do Mormons baptize the dead?

Word of the new measures and blocked accounts comes on the heels of a statement from top church officials that was read to congregations across the globe last weekend clarifying what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to proxy baptisms.

The statement said Mormons’ “pre-eminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors.”

“Without exception, church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances [rituals] any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims,” the statement read. It warned that members who violate the rules could lose access to the system and added, “other corrective action may also be taken.”

Efforts to deal with proxy baptisms are nothing new. Instructions on how to use and contribute to the database grew out of a 1995 agreement with Jewish groups that were horrified to find that people who died because of their faith were being baptized by proxy in Mormon ceremonies.

After the recent flood of stories, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel appeared on CNN and called on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to reprimand his church.

Romney, meantime, has been asked if he has ever partaken in proxy baptisms. He says that he has, but so have most Mormons who are eligible to participate in temple ordinances. Also referred to as temple work, ordinances are the sacred ceremonies performed within LDS temples for the living and the dead.

Explain it to me: Mormonism

Proxy baptisms are part of that work, and Romney's participation was likely decades ago. The baptisms are generally completed by younger Latter-day Saints, between the ages of 12 and 20, with males and females being vicariously submerged for deceased persons of the same gender, explains senior religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune.

“A white-clothed young man or woman, standing in a font of water about waist-high, represents the dead person,” she writes. “He or she is then immersed after the adult male baptizer (also wearing white) says these words: “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of [name of the deceased] in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Mormons, usually ages 12 to 20, are baptized for the dead in LDS temples.

To be sure, for the Jewish people, who have experienced their fair share of forced conversions over the centuries (think the Spanish Inquisition), the suggestion that victims like Holocaust victim Anne Frank or Pearl might be baptized after death can be horribly offensive.

Others might view the practice of proxy baptism as simply strange or utterly meaningless. If you don't subscribe to the Mormon belief system, some might say, why does the practice matter to you?

Still others view the practice as nothing short of laughable and have made a mockery of what Latter-day Saints view as sacrosanct. The website “All Dead Mormons Are Now Gay” lets users enter the name of a dead Mormon and click the "Convert!" button to make them gay. Comedian Stephen Colbert responded on his show by slicing off the tips of hot dogs, thereby proxy-circumcising dead Mormons to make them Jewish.

A special invitation, attendance optional

This isn’t a laughing matter to Mormons, not least of all church officials, who say they wish 100% of its members would abide by their instructions. Putting a definitive stop to inappropriate proxy baptisms, however, is complicated, if not impossible.

“With more than 14 million members around the globe, the church is no more able to guarantee compliance of every member with its policies than other worldwide faiths are able to guarantee theirs,” Michael Otterson, who heads up LDS Church public affairs, wrote in a piece for the Washington Post.

The practice of performing proxy baptisms isn't one that's going away.

Believing as Jesus taught that baptism is essential to “enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5), Mormons believe they are extending a loving invitation to those who died without having the opportunity for this rite. They point to 1 Cornthians 15:29, in which Paul spoke of baptizing the dead, a message LDS Church founder Joseph Smith took to heart.

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In doing proxy baptisms, Mormons do not claim to make anyone Mormon. They believe spirits in the afterlife are being exposed to the gospel, and a proxy baptism provides an opportunity to the dead to either accept or turn down the invitation to believe and find salvation.

Central to LDS Church teachings is the belief that families across generations can be united for eternity. Performing proxy baptisms for the dead is what makes eternal togetherness in heaven possible. Family history research for Mormons, as a result, is of sacred importance.

Members have been in the business of family research since the 1840s, writes Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune. So it’s no coincidence, then, that the LDS Church boasts the most comprehensive genealogical records available.

The church has compiled more than 2.64 billion searchable names in its online historic records collection, and more than 250 million names are added to the database each year, LDS Church officials say. Every year, FamilySearch produces more than 160 million digital images from source documents.

The database is accessible to the public online or at more than 4,850 LDS Church family history centers and libraries in 126 countries.

LDS Church members are given special accounts that allow them, in a separate process, to submit names for temple rites by proxy, as well as see other names that have been submitted and baptized. Such details are off-limits in the public version of the database.

“Our doctrine is for members of the church to submit names of their own relatives for temple work,” church spokesman Purdy wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “Over the years the church has provided eligible names to take to the temple [for ordinances], but it is the primary responsibility of members to submit family names.”

In baptismal fonts in the 136 LDS Church temples that span the globe, temple ordinances for the dead take place every day but Sunday. So an overzealous or troublemaking Mormon in Sydney, Australia, for instance, might ignore instructions and enter a slew of names of people he’s not related to into the system. And then, sometime later at the temple in, say, Accra, Ghana, the people on that list might get baptized by proxy.

Because officials back at LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, can’t monitor what each member does, whether with good intentions or not, names slip through – names like Daniel Pearl, Mickey Mouse and Stanley Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s mother.

Understanding 'the messenger’

Often at the center of breaking proxy baptism stories is Helen Radkey. Touted as a whistleblower, the 69-year-old researcher has shamed the LDS Church time and again for objectionable or embarrassing baptisms.

An ex-Mormon who was excommunicated from the church, she is often seen by some observers as an obsessive agitator. Others praise her for her dogged commitment.

Radkey says she was active in the church for less than five years in the 1970s. In a 2009 profile in The Salt Lake Tribune, it was reported that this “Catholic-turned-Mormon-turned-New-Ager” left her first husband and children to join the church because she wanted in so badly.

A grown son from a later marriage was quoted as saying, “She was on a crusade … to single-handedly take down the Mormon religion. She was so consumed by that, we had a hard time relating to it.”

But the Australian-born Radkey, who lives in Salt Lake City, points out that it’s often others who come to her looking for names, because she has found ways to get access to records and knows how to navigate the system. She suggests journalists, hungry for anything Mormon-related during this election season, have brought her down.

She says someone from a British newspaper asked her to look up Princess Diana, who was baptized in 1999. A wire service reporter called, she adds, wanting to check to see if there’d been a proxy baptism for Gandhi; there had in 1996. And it was a reporter from The Boston Globe, at the prodding of his editor who had once worked with Pearl, who reached out seeking info on his status, the results of which created the latest hubbub.

Helen Radkey is often at the center of proxy baptism stories.

Though Radkey says the church blocked the account she most recently had been using, she hints that she has other accounts available, though she won't divulge details or confirm anything. She also says, “I’m not looking up any more names.” This, however, is a claim she's made before, as she did in the 2009 Salt Lake Tribune profile.

Over the years, she says she’s heard people accuse her of trying to get rich off her efforts. “I don’t make a living,” she says. “I have to do other work, and I get Social Security.”

At one point, about 10 years ago, the head of a Holocaust survivors group paid for her time to accumulate a list of 1,000 Holocaust victims who had been baptized, after the LDS Church claimed the Jewish community was “overreacting to the problem,” says Gary Mokotoff, a Jewish genealogist in New Jersey who has been following the issue for 22 years, long before it made headlines.

Besides being compensated by the same group for her time and expenses in appearing at a news conference in New York a few years ago, “that is the only time [she] received compensation for her effort,” Mokotoff wrote in an e-mail. “Helen puts in hundreds of hours per year on the matter without compensation (and she complains to me about it).”

Others, Radkey says, have speculated that she’s entered the names of those she later finds in LDS records, a charge she denies, calling it “out of date and out of line.”

“The inference that I enter names into the Mormon system, which I never have, usually comes from a Utah mindset that would ‘kill the messenger’ rather than deal with the results of my work,” she wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “Not only have I never done this, I should not have to explain away this false charge because there is not one shred of evidence that I have ever done such a thing.”

The upside for others, including Jews

For Mokotoff, a professional genealogist, there’s an irony to this issue that isn’t lost on him.

The past president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and co-owner of Avotaynu, which publishes resources for Jewish genealogists, Mokotoff is beyond grateful to the LDS Church. He leads trips to Salt Lake City, ground zero for family research. He has benefited directly from the care Mormons take in gathering, preserving and sharing records.

“They have 2.5 million microfilm rolls that represent billions of names,” he says. “I traced back my ancestry to 1727 in Poland because they had made copies of birth, marriage and death records in Warka, Poland, the ancestral town of the Mokotoff family.”

But even so, he remains firm in his belief that the LDS Church must stop baptizing Holocaust victims, and preferably deceased Jews in general, by proxy.

Granted, he respects the caveat that the church has always maintained, that if a Mormon is descended from Jews or Holocaust victims, those names are fair game.

Mokotoff says he recently got an e-mail from someone who was concerned that a niece was marrying a Mormon, would likely convert and would then potentially baptize others in the family.

“She has that right,” Mokotoff answered. “It’s her religion.”

But just as she has that right, the Jewish community has a right to remain concerned about what's happening in a Mormon-only system it can't access.

Blocking a whistleblower like Radkey may slow the ability to keep tabs on proxy baptisms, but it's not insurmountable, Mokotoff says.

“The Mormon church thinks they have found a way to end the controversy between the church and the Jewish community: stop Helen Radkey,” Mokotoff wrote late Thursday in an e-mail. “Ten years ago, their religious database, then called the International Genealogical Index, was accessible to the public. Now it is a secret database that can be used only by password. Helen Radkey has found ways of getting around the church's barriers in the past. She is a resourceful woman. I am sure she will find ways in the future.”

‘It’ll never be perfect’

There are outsiders who wish the LDS Church would just stop the proxy baptisms altogether. But that’s both unrealistic and disrespectful, says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum of Los Angeles.

Greenebaum is intimately involved in the issue as a liaison between the LDS Church and the Jewish community.

“I can work with [the church], and I can suggest strongly what kind of actions they can take,” he says. “But when it comes to their own theology, I don’t have much of a place to tell them what they should believe.”

What the former American Jewish Committee director of interreligious and intergroup affairs can do is take his cues from Holocaust survivors.

“The issue is their relatives lived as Jews and were murdered because they were Jews,” he says. “The whole Jewish sense of never forgetting means remembering who died and why they died.”

To that end, he has worked with LDS Church insiders to alleviate concerns.

He also has seen up close the frustration within the church. He feels for the officials. He applauds them for the statement they issued to members on Sunday and the reminders of guidelines that appear on FamilySearch. He sees how they have made tweaks to the system, established safeguards and how entries are flagged for review, for example, if deaths were during World War II and in places bearing names of Nazi death camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka.

He has observed the new hires, the additional hours and money spent. With several million submissions of names in FamilySearch each month, he says he persuaded the church to do computer runs more frequently to help prevent inappropriate proxy baptism requests from seeping through. When violations appear, someone phones the submitter for a discussion.

When the church first worked out an agreement on the proxy baptism of Holocaust victims back in 1995, there were 8.5 million LDS Church members, Greenebaum says. Now that number is 14 million, and between Internet access and computer advances, the system is enormous and not easy to control.

As a result and despite the hard work, mistakes are bound to happen.

“It’s moving closer to being figured out,” Greenebaum says. “But it’ll never be perfect because it’s just too vast. And it’s important to appreciate the problem they’re dealing with.”

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints • Holocaust • Judaism • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Utah

soundoff (1,493 Responses)
  1. Billy Bob Lamborghini

    Whenever I meet a Mormon or a Scientologist or other fundamentalist religious person, I always feel there is something fundamentally stupid about them. And indeed, they have never failed to eventually prove that it was indeed the case in other non-religious areas as well.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Daniel

      Why do athiests feel that they are somehow vastly superior and more intelligent than believers, really the complete opposite true.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  2. pastmorm

    We need to have Child Services investigate the abuse of forcing children (age 12 and up) to do proxy baptisms for dead people. To me it sounds like a cult ritual that should not be forced upon the innocent little ones just because their parents tell them they must.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • bfin

      @pastmorm You need to speak some truths, get a life and worry about yourself.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Manny

      Mormons do not force their youth to do baptisms for the dead or any other ritual.. it is completely voluntary. Mormons get attacked and ridiculed all the time for their beliefs but all religions have rituals or practices that others might consider strange or different......

      March 9, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  3. carlyjanew6

    http://www.Hear-The-Truth.com

    March 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  4. MeMelvin

    All religions have some kind of ceremonial practice for the dead. Post-mortum baptism seems a bit strange, but no more than far-eastern reincarnation beliefs and ceremonies.

    The point being, if one does not believe in post-mortum baptism what impact does that have on the living? Is a Jewish person harmed directly by this Mormon practice. Insulting, may be, but should people respond like Muslims killing those who damage their holy book? Of course not!

    I find it as silly as after I have had a debate on religion, and my "opponent" says: "Well, I'm going to pray for you!" Both of us knowing that that person won't and that I don't really care, because their prayer offering does not fit into my religious position.

    It is meaningless, as is post-mortum baptism to a non-Mormon.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • GodPot

      "The point being, if one does not believe in post-mortum baptism what impact does that have on the living? Is a Jewish person harmed directly by this Mormon practice."

      If the mormons were making little dolls of each Jewish person they were baptizing after death and instead of "baptizing" them they held a little ceremony where they stuff thousands of the dolls into the gas oven beneath their temple to "figuratively" commit genocide would you be okay with it? It's not hurting anyone, right?

      March 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • MeMelvin

      GofPot, That is an excellant rebuttal, albeit too the extreme. I have to laugh, not a you, but at such a great example you gave.

      Yes, you have a point that some "religious ceremonies" really push the envelope on credulity and at some point can cross a line of civility.

      But I return to my Muslim example. Advocating death or severe punishment for actions such as holy book destruction or dunking an avatar in place of a dead person may cause the "offended" in a position of appearing quite distance from his/her religious instruction and thereby sinning against one's own diety.

      I find it all part of the human comedy.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  5. German Descent

    After the baptisms, the people standing in are immediately bathed in diarrhea to get the stink of religion off of them.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  6. Solitairedog

    I find the practice disgusting and disrespectful. But that's ok. I figure I can hold my own little ceremonies and make all of their deceased elders gay. Welcome to postmortem conversion! I should get a lot of toasters out of this one.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • mike

      I must say treating them with the "golden rule" is an outstanding pratice. Here's what the Mormons are doing with their proxy baptisims is accordance with the Golden Rule. They want every other religion or group to induct mormans. So all you religious fanatics now can go after dead mormons and convert them

      March 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  7. Jake90

    Even though proxy baptists don't hurt anyone, we need to respect the dead. nuff said.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  8. K Ols

    Sara Urry, the difference is that other religions don't impose their beliefs on other religions while Mormons do by the very act of baptizing people by proxy who would not have consented while they were still living. It should make no difference whether a person is related to a Mormon whether you can decide you have the right to baptize them as a Mormon when they weren't Mormon to begin with. If the tables were turned and you were being baptized after your death by another faith I'm sure you too would find it offensive. Other religions may have their beliefs and riturals but they don't involve anyone not of their faith unlike Mormons.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • LinSea

      K, you may have overlooked an important aspect of the article–it is a pretty long article. The proxy baptism DOES NOT automatically make someone a Mormon. The person for whom the baptism was performed has the option to accept or reject it. It is entirely their choice.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  9. Meh

    The Jews can be as offended as they like, but I don't see why. No graves are being violated, nobody's being held underwater by force, or anything of the sort. Someone's wearing a sheet and masquerading as a dead person, accepting a baptism on their behalf. It's utterly meaningless. Unless someone undergoes the ritual themselves, it's just role-playing. The Jews offended by this would be better served pitying the play-actors, or ignoring this insanity entirely.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  10. Jake

    This is a well written story but from what I can see there are many that failed to read it. Radkey is someone that cannot be fully trusted. If someone is excommunicated from the church it is not because they asked to leave or did something wrong in the churches beliefs. It is for crimes and dishonesty that everyone would not find acceptable. In many cases this person would go to prison because of it. Otherwise it is a outright dishonest nature that the person has. In honesty Radkey might be a good person but she is not to be trusted. As for the website saying they are making dead Mormon gay. Anyone would be attacked both by the press and other gay rights groups as being bigots or many other negative names for making a website saying they are making gays straight. Making fun of a LDS practice is just as disrespectful. If you do not understand the churches beliefs you have access everywhere. From neighbors that are Mormon, to the missionaries and the church websites that are honest about all our beliefs. There are many out there that will pass lies to you and say how strange or crazy the beliefs are. Go to the source and make that decision yourself after long hours of study. You might not join but you will gain a respect for the churches beliefs.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  11. Ray Gurgitate

    I am no Democrat but this creeps me out about Mormons.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  12. peacefulliving

    How arrogant and disrespectful mormons (no capital M here) are to think they need to save souls. We all have our own believes and need to be respected as such.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Dolan

      Exactly! We all have our own beliefs and need to be respected! Starting with respecting the Mormon faith and their beliefs, let them act as they believe.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Monica Smith

    Words fail me.....

    March 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  14. WachetAuf

    God is not the author of confusion. 1 Corinthians 14:33.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  15. Jake90

    I received one of these proxy baptisms after I had converted to Buddhism. Now I'm personally not into spiritual aspects of religion (more into the philosophy), so this really didn't affect me. But in my opinion this practice needs to be outlawed. If it is illegal for a religion to be militarized, then this should also be illegal to prevent terrorism from happening.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • amexican

      Jake,

      proxy baptisms are only for deceased people, so how could you have been baptized by proxy? Makes no sense.

      March 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  16. W

    To prevent or reverse unwanted proxy baptism just write down on paper the names of the people you want to protect or un-baptize, face west, say "proxy baptism" backwards three times, then "bababooey" three times, and burn the paper. You're all set!

    March 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • GodPot

      Don't forget to make a voodoo effigy of Joseph Smith and poke his backside with a vaseline covered q-tip, this figuratively represents the virtual ass r a p e in reverse.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • jdaddy05

      Really Media, the only people that believe in proxy baptisms are mormons, the rest of the world doesn't and that it will not effect anything in the live after...so how really cares about this story...it is just a bunch of anti-Romney (Mormons) trying to get it so that the rest of the US do not vote for Romney. Who cares people. You Americans are so stupid, you read something that you don't believe and you get all hyped up about it when really it will not effect anyways. You Americans are all Sheep...losers.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • AJ

      LOL!

      March 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  17. Tom

    Romney marks the end to christianity inthe US. His angry sick cult will divide us.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Roguey

      Some would characterize Christianity as "an angry sick cult."

      March 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Millie

      Talk about being unchristian! Intolerant and hateful comments are the complete opposite of what Christianity stands for.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  18. Sean D

    The "need" for baptism as a "requirement" for entrance into Heaven, is NOT an exclusive L.D.S. teaching. ANY religion that professes to believe the Bible to be the word of God, surely believes this. One very basic example. Mark 16:16 "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Does it get any clearer? It's not that confusing.

    March 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Jamie

      The bible, like all other books are the words of men. Beware the man of one book.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  19. Carrie

    Well good , now that will give Mitt more time to campaign!

    March 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  20. Emperor Vadik, CA

    When people look upon the Heaven streets, only two things are certain...

    1. The Heaven is guarded by U.S. Marines

    2. There are no Mormons there what so ever

    March 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.