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.”
Guys, don't get so worked up over this ... Religion is just an opinion, kinda like rooting for Roger Clemens or Peyton Manning or watching American Idol ... just something to make up in your mind and have fun with ...
Nothing funnier than watching a bunch of poeple who are pretty much identical (Muslims, Christians, Jews, Mormons) arguing ...
Always good for a laugh ... now, back to the real world where there are no tooth fairies or trolls.
Seems to me that the Mormons would do better to give Radkey her own unlimited access account to their records if they're serious about stopping proxy baptisms. She works for free (something the Mormons seem to value a LOT) and has certainly been more effective in discovering violations of their supposed guidelines than they are. So cutting her out of that loop tells me that they have no intention of actually changing anything - they're just trying to hide the continuing abuses.
And, just out of curiousity, WHY is it always someone rich and/or famous that they hijack with this ritual? Did anyone do proxy work for Lefayla who was murdered in the last Uguandan massacre? (I made that name up.) My guess would be "no" because a nameless, faceless citizen of Africa just isn't and special as Princess Diana. Mormons and Scientologists and their obsession with celebrities and wealth...
Seeing as they've baptized 2billion+ people, not all of whom could possibly be rich/famous ... I think your argument is hyperbole and an effort at defaming the Mormons, for whatever reason. Truth be told it's those who investigate who are obsessed with famous people – I don't see them reporting/angry that a random teenager killed in the Civil war was baptized.
Shame on them for caring about whether the dead get into heaven ... uh, much worse things to worry about if you ask me.
Way too much religion in this country for good mental health.
My sentiments, exactly. Now to get through to my mom and SIL...
Yes. I totally agree.
Which is why you should come to DC on March 24th and join the Reason Rally to get religion out of politics!
It is not a "forced" conversion. Mormons believe the deceased person can choose whether he or she wants to accept that proxy baptism.
And we believe you are hijacking the names of our beloved deceased and would appreciate it if you'd stop. Let your God issue the invitations personally, for God's sake.
Now that would be a neat trick, the person being dead and all. How exactly does a dead person DECIDE?
This gets better and better...lmao Let the dead decide.......
The notion that good people like Anne Frank and other Holocaust victims or anyone else who has lit a candle in this dark world has to get permission from a church to enter heaven is sick. They're essentially sending the message that little pure, good Anne Frank will be denied entrace into God's kingdom because she's not Mormon. This doesn't need explanation as to how that is offensive.
It is just sick, the whole ideology is sick. And Mormons wonder why people don't like their church?
Doesn't every religion believe in life after death??
Of course MOST religions believe in life after death! But the difference is that most religions think that god allows people into heaven, not a church itself. Don't use a play on words–that's exactly what the mormon church is saying. a deceased person must go through the mormon church first to get to god. I thought Jesus said that HE is the ONLY way, not the Mormon church.
Not all holocaust victims were Jews. And if the dead can't decide then the baptism doesn't mean anything anyway.
I'm not one to believe in these things anyway ... but this whole issue really seems like making something that is fundamentally a positive gesture into a dark awful thing which it isn't intended to be. Motivation is important. Much worse things have happened/are happening in the world. It's like slapping someone in the face for trying to help.
A vote for a Morman brings us closer to national insanity.
Oh brother. Just like it's insane to elect a Catholic, or Episcopalian, or Unitarian, or Presbyterian, or even "un affiliated". All of these have been elected President. But the day a "mormon" gets elected, we're all doomed, right?
This practice is silly and pointless and no excuse for a "crackdown".
They have as much right to do it as any other silly religious ritual.
This is religious persecution. Mind your own business.
You think the memory of our own dead isn't OUR business?
Give it a rest. This is about a preexisting dislike you had for Mormons. The ritual is just an excuse to attack them.
This is one religion's persecution of another religion's persecution of them. In other words, it's a moron-a-thon on all sides.
It's disrespectful and is just another example of "my way is the right way." Just keep your religion to yourself and allow others to do the same. Jerks.
@Rebecka: Mormons are officially only permitted to baptize their own ancestors... So they are taking "care" of their own dead. There have been some that have broken the rules and will be punished, but the official rule is that you only baptize your own family members.
Front cover of CNN why? Couldn't be because GOP frontrunner is Mormon? Nahh! /s
I think it is fair. My son's Presidential run has put the LDS church front and center. The "real" Christians, in a sign of true Christian charity, consider the LDS Church a cult. Whether my son Willard (his mom insisted on Mitt, I always hated it) decided to run a lot of people claimed he wasn't a Christian. This puts the practices of the LDS church under scrutiny since we all know the President of the US MUST be a Christian. I can assure you Willard is a true Christian. Remember that gal who asked Governor Clinton Boxers or Briefs? I dare you to ask Willard that.
It's bad enough to try to force your religious views on the living, but forcing them on the dead is beneath contempt. But I suspect the LDS will not stop the dead baptisms, they'll just make sure it's done in total secrecy. The only reason they are addressing this issue now is that they're getting unwanted attention, not because they have had a change of heart or beliefs.
Actually, the mormon church never claimed to stop the baptisms, just those they have committed to exclude such as the holocaust victims. There's nothing secret about it. I don't see how it matters–my son was sprinkled by a Catholic priest when he was born in a catholic hospital. It doesn't make an iota of difference to me.
On the other hand, the genealogy effort is incredible, and the LDS church has made it very user friendly to anyone. It's fun to track down your ancestors and learn their stories.
Kind of weird, but ultimately it is no different from when someone else says, "I'll pray for you" even though I'm not religious. It's meant in a positive, caring way. They wanted to make sure that person would be able to get into their version of heaven.
There is a slightly more insidious reason for it though, to indoctrinate and secure young and impressionable minds into the faith. Must be pretty scary and profound to go through a procedure like that being told you are helping someone else go to heaven.
My will called for me to be Baptized a Muslim posthumously. I found the Mormans to be a bunch of fuken loonies. The Muslims seems so much more sensible.
Suicide bombers? O'rly???
Remember, if you want others to be tolerant of your beliefs, you need to be tolerant of theirs. Mormons mean no harm with these baptisms. In fact, its more of a compliment that someone would submit your name. If you aren't mormon, and think its a sham, then let it be. We've got to stop all this fighting. We've got more important things to be fighting for.
Come on. YOu have to admit this proxy baptism is fuken nutty. Stop doing nutty and people will take you seriously.
"Remember, if you want others to be tolerant of your beliefs, you need to be tolerant of theirs. Mormons mean no harm with these baptisms. " Cool, so if I put up with a few baptisms, the Mormons will become respectful of my atheism? When will this happen? When pigs fly?
Umm, respect is a two-way street. When are Mormons planning to respect us?
No bro, Mormons try to convert anyone within 10 feet, AKA the "10 foot rule", which is synonymous with Multi-Level Marketing. And Mormons love MLM's, Utah is home to the Mormons. And MLM's.
Most of what people do – religious or not – is nutty. Religion is just today's target. Religion or not people will find a way to be awful to each other if that is what they want for themselves.
These bigots, reportedly baptized Mahatma Gandhi, who was a staunch Hindu but had great admiration for Christ and his teaching. Gandhi would be appalled at this insane activity and he was against proselytization and missionary bigotry. Can't understand why they should baptize dead, in a rather sneaky way.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that baptism is a saving activity that must take place to return to live with God. They have never kept it a secret. Every person who listens to the pre-baptisimal lessons are taught this as a basic principle. It's not as though they are digging up dead bodies and baptizing them. And if you think the whole religion is a hoax, what does it really matter to you? Does it cause you or anyone else any real harm?
There isn't anything sneaky about it. The baptism simply allows somebody an opportunity they didn't have otherwise in life. It may be accepted or rejected by the individual and is not binding. If the Mormons are correct, then its a gift. If not, it's meaningless. Baptizing somebody in a Mormon temple doesn't make them a convert as far as Mormons are concerned. It just opens a door.
Where in the bible is baptism of the dead by proxy supported?
"Where in the bible is baptism of the dead by proxy supported?" Your Bible is incomplete because it's not the Book of Mormon. Remember, Christ came back and wrote a new book? You don't need a Bible when you have the Book, and it will explain all about the planets and the hells and the 72 virgins and stuff. Yawn.
How dare they.
"Why would anyone care if Mormons are doing their magic rituals on people?" Why would you keep denying over and over that people are offended? Just admit they are and stop telling them to lighten up.
and this fellow Romney may be our next Prez? Good Grief
More proof religion is crazy. LOL, crazy Mormon witchcraft.
Religious people are quite looney.
Sorry folks, but I really don't believe in Santa Claus or trolls or witches. And there ain't no little red man living in the middle of the earth – it's very hot in there according to scientists.
Try the real world sometime – millions live here, and not in the clouds ... ho ho ho ... oops, wait, the tooth fairy is at the door gotta run ...
Christianity: The belief that a Jewish space zombie will make you live forever if you eat his flesh, drink his blood, and telepathically tell him he is your Master, so that he can remove an evil from your soul which was put there because a woman made of a rib was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magic tree. Any questions?
After reading that, I want my foreskin back.
@rabbi Goldberg – LOL...me too.
Excuse me, but shouldn't the article have read thusly?:
"The church is committed to preventing the misguided practice of ANYONE for proxy baptism,” spokesman Michael Purdy said in a written statement.
Laughable. What do these clowns think they're doing. Anne Frank is about the farthest thing from a Mormon.
They believe that they are giving these poor dead atheists and pagans, aka non-Mormons, a chance to get into Heaven when they find out their beliefs were wrong and that only Mormons are Christians. It's kind of touching, really, like kids burying a dead bird.
I'll be she never even heard of a Mormon
To all the people here who think this is no big deal, I hereby convert all of your dead ancestors and relatives to Muslims, delcare them to be Muslims, and will post their names at the Mosque.
Still OK with that?
I thought so.
Go ahead. I'm not in the Mosque so I don't know or care. You don't make a good point.
what a pointless story. crazies gonna craze
Yes I am okay with that because my guess is my relatives/ancestors will say "no thanks" to that. You don't understand Mormons' belief. The deceased person can say "no thanks" to the proxy baptism.
They're dead; who really cares?
What's wrong with being Muslim? I don't belong to any religion but this is one of the more ignorant things I have read on hear. Being Muslim doesn't make you a terrorist. Again religions (aka myths) cause more wars and deaths than anything else.
You don't get it. You only hear what you want to hear. Mormons do proxy baptisms to provide those who have died an opportunity to accept the baptism. And if you don't believe in it, what does it matter to you? Is it hurting you in any way?
Meh ... I wouldn't care.
If they did it because they thought they were caring for my family members and trying to get them into heaven ... I don't see where the problem is. At its core its an act of love so why complain? Much worse things in the world to worry about, I'd say.
Besides, the article says the dead are not being converted and apparently they can reject the effects of the baptism. Who knows, may the dead are grateful?
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.