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.”
Let's add this to the LONG and ever growing list of reasons why organized religion is ridiculous.
Yeah, that's why you're on the Belief Blog.....bahahahaha!
This is a place where non-believers can touch base with believers - the religious web sites sure won't let us speak.
Why would anyone care if Mormons are doing their magic rituals on people? As long as they don't interfere with them in some tangible, real way, I could care less if they "proxy baptize" me, any more than I would care if a witch doctor put a curse on me.
This is much ado about nothing, and hardly comparable to forced conversions during the Spanish Inquisition. The article points out that they get baptized for dead people who get to 'choose' on the other side if they want that baptism. It's misguided, sure, but the intent is hardly sinister. I love (*eyeroll*) how the article didn't make much of Redkey's "ex mormon" status. Someone has an axe to grind!
CNN, could you folks at least make a cursory attempt at balanced reporting during this election year?
"Forced" conversions??? Nothing is obviously forced here if the person we are talking about is deceased.
So Mormons are once again caught "baptising" people once they're dead. This has been going on for decades and yet we still allow this group to continue to inflict their beliefs on others.
At what point do we stop the charade that religion is somehow special and start prosecuting these folks? When are we going to go after Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen for fraud?
As to telling them to knock off the "baptisms", yes Rabbi Greenbaum, you do have the right to tell them. In fact, you need to go after them for continuing to denigrate your religion and take legal action if necessary. Your religion has no problem going after people who you deem to be anti-semitic, especially when they say anything bad about Israel, it shouldn't have a problem going after these hacks.
To think that the Republican front-runner is involved in such an organization should give everyone pause. It's bad enough the second place Republican candidate genuflects to a foreign government, we shouldn't have to put up with people who think it's acceptable to mangle a person once they're dead and can't defend themselves.
But then we are talking about religion where common sense and decency aren't part of the game plan.
Cannot take this serious when in the opeing you say they are inflicting their belief on others. Last I checked we all have our freedoms.
It's possible to inflict your beliefs on a dead person? Pretty sure they're not listening. Get over yourself and get off your self-righteous high horse. If you don't believe them move on. Don't make it your hate filled mission in life to tear them down.
Hey CNN! Nice job. This monkey KAS is exactly the kind of person you wanted to stir up. Way to go and subtley (yea right, front page), insinuate that the misunderstood practice is so zannie that you dont' want to vote for Romney. What politcal timing you have! Why not just go donate $1M to Obama's superpac like Maher did. At least you would be out in the open about the biased reporting. As for this practice and others of the Mormons, before you go off and lambast them for something you know nothing about, find an actual Mormon and ask them about what they believe. You will hear family, Christ, and other priorities that mirror the priorities of other Christians. Before you judge, go talk to one. I dare you...
How can those heartless Mormons now say they'll DENY dead Jews all the blessings of Mormon afterlife? This should be a major scandal. The Jews have been through enough already. And now this... Dead Jews should not be discriminated against by being the only group of people denied the fullness of Mormon afterlife. This a a travesty.
It will all work out in the end. Nothing to worry about here.
I've lived in two heavily LDS areas, and never before have I seen people so willing to do whatever church leadership tells them to do. There is no doubt in my mind that the people acting out these controversial baptisms were doing what leadership told them to do. For that leadership to then blame its people for not following the rules, essentially throwing their devout followers under the bus, is beyond reprehensible. I understand and respect that faith is an important part of many people's lives, but I hope that at least some of these congregants will consider that their very lives have been hijacked simply to benefit the mormon corporate machine, and demand better from their leadership. Also, it's very obvious their actions of protecting the database revolve around keeping the public from finding out what they are doing, NOT preventing it from happening.
Wow. Hateful much? If they are so willing to do what their leaders say, you will know that this letter from their leaders should stop the practice. Sometimes it's just a matter of well-meaning people doing something disrespectful and wrong; it doesn't always have to be some big orchestrated conspiracy theory. I think your name fits you, Xeno. You exhibit a disturbing fear of people whose beliefs differ from your own. So much for being open-minded.
If you don't believe in their baptism, what does it hurt? They can "baptize" me all they want after I'm dead, and it won't matter a bit. I have my own matters of faith which satisfy me.
So why even worry about it? Now if they come crashing into my house to drag me to their baptistry, then you have a problem.
Getting your panties in a wad about this silly nonsense means you have too much time on your hands.
Is there some reality here? Did something real happen?
Belief is not truth. The Mormons didn't do anything and
the complainers are complaining about nothing.
....this is the kookery that Mittens Romney is mixed up in....if you vote for this kook, you might as well vote for Elmo....gotta love mormons tho, they cant help but tell you theyre morons- I mean mormons-ok I really mean morons -which is a great public service: it lets us know who the stupid people are....
Stupid is how I feel to have read your post.
Hey Joe, is that why it is the fastest growing christian church IN THE WORLD!! Only God's chosen will hear his voice and accept the truth and be baptized into the LDS faith. If your heart is hardened and you can not hear his whisper in your soul then you are not one of the elect and condemned to hell. Sorry man. We still love ya though!
Scott – the Book of Mormon conflicts with the Bible....I've studied them both.
As was mentioned in the article. Jewish Christians were practicing baptism for the dead 2000 years ago. This is not a new religious practice that is unique to the Mormons.
great.. so you're saying Mormons are still actively practicing things people 2000 years ago did! I don;t think that's a positive thing there bubba!
True. but the Bible didn't say it was right or that it actually accomplished anything. No worries though, the Mormons aren't using the Biblically correct approach to baptism anyway. They are baptizing in the "Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost" rather than declaring the actual name is "Jesus".
Mormons... always good for a laugh..
If Jesus said that NO ONE can enter into the kingdom of heaven without being born of the water (John 3:5), then what about those folks born in China 4000 years ago who never heard of Jesus, or those born in Africa 1000 years ago, etc., etc.? Christians either shrug their shoulders or write them off as condemned to hell.
...no, christian fundementalist kooks believe the world is only 4000 years old and therefore, deny anything happened before then...so, essentially, their like millions of people who missed the first season of Lost and therefore were, well lost....
The Moron Church was invented by a kook that supposidly found and lost some gold tablets. Handy,eh? They have very weird requirements and even weirder habits. If it isn't a cult they need to redo the word. However, they are like any other religion, they all require an incredible talent for self-delusion.
Not true. If you can get us the names of those chinese, we will be glad to baptise them too!! That is the whole purpose behind the practice.
Jesus didn't say that. Jesus says no one will enter the kingdom but through Him. Baptism is among the means to know Christ. So are the Bible, and Communion.
Any Christians you've talked to who don't give this response, don't know their Bibles very well...
Hence the baptism...duh. Read the article?
There was a different approach to salvation for people living prior to the crucifixion (the old testament). Also, the Bible assures that every person will have the opportunity to hear the gospel at least once before they are held accountable. No Christian can legitimately place any one in heaven or hell. If it were that clear the Bible wouldn't talk of a judgement process.
Robert, that's exactly what proxy baptisms are for. They allow deceased person the right to either accept or reject that ordinance, so people who lived even before the time of Christ can have the opportunity of it. But, it's their choice!
When you join the LDS Church, you are required to give your Social Security number so that they can find you if you try to slip away...I moved away from the church to another city and they tracked me down and were knocking at my front door o_0
And then what happened?
Social Security number. Um, bullcrap. They send your membership records.
Incorrect my friend!!! I have been a member all my life. I have access to my own membership file and I have never given my Soc. Sec number to the LDS church. Currently more the half the membership resides outside the US. They don't have Soc. Sec. numbers!!! Whoever told you this nonsense has lied to you, period.
No. You are not.
Damn....that's enough to keep me from ever becoming a Mormon.
wow, big deal for festering jewbaggers. will jewbaggers demand we drop bombs for this?
Wow ... religious people are wierd ... what is so difficult to understand about 'you are born, then you die'.
Millions of animals are born and die each day. Are there little 'fly Gods' out there? (oops, 'lord of the flies' comes to mind'.
Ok, skip the fly analogy, but I find it hard to believe that Giraffe's have their own God.
Get over it folks – we live in a real world, and there ain't no Santa Claus. Oh, forget it, you'll never learn.
The spirit world is the "real world". Humans are the only beings that have spirits. Have you ever seen a bird that struggled with depression, relationship issues or suicide? If there were no spiritual component of life, humans wouldn't struggle with those things either.
Look I think the Mormon practice is absurd but it is personal freedom for a person to do it. Besides. If the religion is not something you believe in who cares?
Maybe that crazy Ricky Perry supporting pastor from Dallas was really on to something... Coo Coo, coo coo!!
The Caths and the Mormons should have a reality show, "Extreme Baptisms", it's about how infants, toddlers and dead people are forced to be baptized. To make it even more appealing to audiences, they can have zombie baptisms too performed by, yeah you guessed it (ding, ding ding), the SLC loonies!
each religion should be allowed to practice their own beliefs – with their own people. as a genealogist – i use their database frequently finding info about my ancestors and relatives. however, as a lifelong Lutheran – i didn't care too much when cousin sue left the Lutheran church, joined the Mormon church and had grandma baptized years after she died. I have her baptism certificate from when she was a baby (got it from Sue's dad) and baptized in the Lutheran church where her parents and grandparents were charter members. and then she had grandma sealed to the second husband – her grandfather – not mine. what if grandma wanted nothing to do with either loser? now she is stuck with one of them. sheesh!
So what? Exactly what is your point. Like anyone cares where hell your grandma was dunked, or not.
No if your grandmother did not want these ordinances done and does not agree with them then she has the choice eternally to reject them. Her choice. We just give the person the opportunity to do what we believe they cannot do for themselves. No one makes them accept anything against their will in this life or in the life after this one.
I am not aware that the LDS genealogists can change public records - like marriage certificates, birth certificates, etc. Nowhere in official public doc.uments (that I know of) is there a listing of religious affiliation. If your grandmother was married to your grandfather legally, that's all that counts. Whatever the Mormon church lists on their voodoo "records" is totally irrelevant.
Plus, I'm sure that, as a genealogist, you know that even though the LDS records are often helpful, they do have errors (sometimes not completely their fault, as in illegible handwriting on certificates). They have a bungled last name for one of my grandmothers, and nobody could never trace her line that way. Always verify information from as many sources as is possible.
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.