March 9th, 2012
07:50 AM ET
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."
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."
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.
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.”
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
“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.
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.
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.”
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.