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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. noblue

    Where's the harm? It's not like baptism actually does anything?

    March 9, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • angel611

      So if the Ayatollah of Iran, got your name, and made you an Iranian Muslim against your will, and made it so other Muslims could know about it, you would have no problem with that?
      Now that's weird.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • John

      Angel, I was baptized into a faith 60 years ago (and it was no doubt against my will to have cold water dripped on my head), but in truth I don't think anyone has ever even mentioned it again. Only a loony-tune would look it up, much less then come to me to make something of it. Just as only loony-tunes think baptizing the dead might not be a little of the too-little-too-late; or worse, that doing so somehow improves their own chances.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  2. John

    For all those who were worried about being baptized, I hereby UN-baptize everyone on earth. Do not worry!- I am as qualified to link god and man as is anyone else on this loony-bin planet.

    Oops, did I go too far? Well, if you did not WANT to be UN-baptized, for a small fee to cover expenses I can reinstate you in the good graces of the lord. Just log on to pen-pal or whatever it is and make a small donation to account 666.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  3. angel611

    Folks, when a so called religious group thinks they can pick famous people who are already dead, and baptize them as member, that's a CULT.
    Period.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  4. lisa

    Clearly this whole story line has been pushed to the forefront because we have a candidate who's Mormon. No one would even hear about this practice otherwise. While I think it's wrong it seems the church is taking steps to correct the unwanted baptisms from happening. So what's the big deal?

    March 9, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Beatrix Kiddo

      The big deal is that they aren't correcting the problem, they're just blocking us from seeing the problem occurring in the future.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  5. Vivian

    Wow, with all that is going on the world, this makes today's headlines!? Well, at least it's not another story on Lady Gaga, but, come on CNN, aren't there bigger stories to put front and center?

    March 9, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • angel611

      Mormons make Lady Gaga look like the most normal person on the planet.
      LOL

      March 9, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • mdreader

      This is hardly a "headline". A "headline" is front page news on the New York TImes or Washington Post. A CNN religious blog is not a headline. This story is properly placed.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  6. Living History

    Historically, the Church of LDS will say what ever it takes to make the problem "go away", but will continue the practice behind closed doors. They have their own agenda and really don't care what the rest of the world thinks. I imagine they will close up their security problems so the rest of us will not hear as much about it in the news, but believe me, they will continue the practice.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  7. Jonathan Mitrosky

    To be honest this has got to be the most retarded thing i have ever read.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Ryan

      I am retarded...because of what you said, I am offended and hurt. Why do people have to make comments about things that mean nothing to them? All you end up doing is sounding foolish.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  8. slick

    Am I the only one who finds these stories amusing? If you are not Mormon, and don't believe what they are doing has any real significance, who cares?! No laws are being broken, some people are just way too sensitive about their little feelings...

    March 9, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Alex

      No you are not. I think we should have "Everybody baptize a dead jew day" just next to "Everybody draw Mohammed day". Imaginary problems are funny.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  9. JohnRJ08

    The more I learn about Mormonism, the more bizarre it seems. The more I learn about Joseph Smith, the more it looks like a cult. Even so, I hesitate to attack it, because I know many Mormons who are very nice people. It is an odd dilemma. What is most perplexing is that so many people who appear to be intelligent and well-adjusted would be involved in this belief system at all. It seems to be more about carrying on a cultural tradition than belief in an actual spiritual concept. The details of Mormonism and its history are just slightly less crazy than Scientology.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Turn About is Fair Play

      "I know some very nice Mormons."

      Except if you were Gay. Then they'd not be so nice.

      Ya know, I'll bet there were some really nice Nazis, too. Except if you were Jewish.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  10. DesijoeAbhijitshukla

    Really?
    This is front page news as Romney is the apperent nnominy?
    Did you do stories about Obama's church in 2008 – before the tapes came out?

    March 9, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Al

      CNN is part of the liberal media that supports liberal Democrats...

      March 9, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  11. elizatoo

    This is called "let's get this sorted before we have a Mormon trying to be elected President and someone digs this up".

    March 9, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  12. Robert

    Okay, so let me get this straight. People are offended that LDS do proxy baptisms for them, but they are NOT OFFENDED because Christ did a proxy death and atonement for their sins? Good luck getting Christ to annul that one for you.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Roguey

      Good point.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Beatrix Kiddo

      Depending on which mythology you ascribe to, your belief in the fictional Jesus means no more than these make believe baptisms do.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  13. Al Freeman

    "Do not do to others what is abjectionable to you!" – that is the essense of Judaism. Everything else is superfluous commentary. All this rage about baptizing dead Jews is a "Tempest in a bottle." Non-issue. Be kind to the living ones – that's where the problem lies...

    March 9, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  14. JG

    It appears that a group that lives by "Freedom of Religion" is awefully intolerant of someone else's belief that may be different than their own.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Al

      You read my mind!

      March 9, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Mike

      It is hard to be tolerant of beliefs that across the board have created more pain, death, and persecution by a landslide than any other invention of mankind. It is also hard to be tolerant of those beliefs when people are actively trying to insert them into the legal fabric of this country.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  15. Nora

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2093241/Mitt-Romneys-family-baptized-Ann-Romneys-atheist-father-Mormon-church-year-AFTER-death.html

    March 9, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  16. Face

    This is just the beginning of the Crazy Mormon stuff... just wait until Romney gets the actual nomination....

    March 9, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  17. Jeff

    How many more pieces of evidence do people need to come to the realization that religion is a huge scam? Baptizing dead people by having a stand-in?....gimme a break. Religion is nothing more than the largest and longest running hoax of mankind. It was created to control and manipulate people and societies because it was once realized that civil laws and rules weren't enough to do so. Do yourselves a favor and watch George Carlin's "Religion is BS" on Youtube. Although presented in a comedic sense, he wraps it up quite accurately.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  18. thes33k3r

    Oh religion.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  19. iamdeadlyserious

    This is, at best, a superficial gesture.

    The church's stated goals are conversion, and part of their fundamental belief system is that everyone needs to receive a baptism for the dead, so that they can be reunited with their families in the Mormon version of heaven. While the church constantly points out that the practice is only supposed to be about family members, they fail to mention that genealogy trees of church members are done so extensively that members can claim a baptism for the dead for almost anyone as "family".

    March 9, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Roguey

      We are all family at some point. I don't see what the fuss is about. I suppose some people could reasonably object to desecrating a grave or a corpse but to mumble words, and perform ceremonies about a "soul". They can baptize me after I'm dead, or even now, while I'm alive. Makes no difference what silly voodoo anyone does about my "soul".

      March 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Roguey,

      Yes, the ceremony is meaningless for people who don't believe in it. The problem is that after the ceremony is completed, your name is entered into the books as being a member of the church. So after you die, they get to change your history and use your name as a population-booster for their own rosters.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • amexican

      That is actually not true. Proxy baptisms are not counted anywhere, nor used to booster any roster.

      March 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      amexican,

      What, pray tell, are the online genealogy databases for, then? And how was a layperson able to get records of who had received baptisms for the dead?

      March 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Bizarre

      amexican
      "That is actually not true. Proxy baptisms are not counted anywhere,"

      Sez you... on what authority? Are you the "prophet", or in the highest muckety-muck of that organization?

      Not that I care much, unless they would try to use it for political power and social control.

      March 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  20. Texan

    Why doesn't some 15 year old from Anonymous hack in and unbaptize them?

    March 9, 2012 at 11:39 am |
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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.