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.”
Romney, a Bishop in the Mormon Church, refused to answer when he was asked if he had done posthumous baptisms on Holocaust victims.
He should give a honest answer to this question as well as tell us if he took any actions which his church denied membership to blacks until after Romney was in his 30's.
No, he should have just ignored the question like he did. How is he going to know if he did a baptism for a Holocaust victim? He doesn't bring the persons name to the temple and get baptized for the person. Its just some random name. He has no idea. So if he says "No, I never was" then you get crazy obsessed people like Radkey who will try and prove that he did and then plaster it all over the front page of CNN.
People keep saying mormons didn't allow blacks into their church till the 1970s which is a major misconceptions. There have been black mormons since the beginning. Black men were unfortunately not allowed to hold the priesthood and it was a great day when that was changed. Go to blacklds.org if you really want to know what black mormons think.
What an exercise in "mental masturbation". It benefits no one but the performer.
Just leave the dead alone...you Stupid Humans.
I'm not religious, but I find this disrespectful to other peoples' faiths. On the other hand, they're just putting something into a data base, if I'm reading that right, so...big deal. But then again, how much sillier is that than getting ceremoniously dunked under water or having water sprinkled on a baby's head? It's all pretty dumb if you think about it. But each person has the right to their own dumb ceremonious whatever and it's not acceptable to second guess that for someone else after they're dead or try to change their history.
This just goes to show how rediculous religion is. The problem here isn't mormons, its the practice of religion itself.
Difficult to believe that such an archaic, primitive ritual is still carried out.
It's an embarrassment to our modern culture.
Nice CNN – I'm sure this strange and awful practice, which represents probably .0000001% of all religious people, is deserving of front page – and MAIN story – importance. I'm sure in no way does this represent any attempt by CNN to portray all religious types in a negative light. Or at least get the public feeling of annoyance with religion up.
I'm not sure where I personall fall on religion, but I know agenda when I see it.
"I know agenda when I see it." Of course you don't have one yourself . . . .
It would be inappropriate to discuss Romney's religion if the far right had not made such an enormous issue of Obama's faith.
You reap what you sow.
The Bible is a book mostly made up by humans without any divine intervention. That's my opinion. Does that help tell you where I fall? Ahem.
I would never vote for Romney. Ugh, the stereotyping from the left (and right) can be so deflating.
Who cares. God probably doesn't exist, and if he does, he isn't going to hold one people accountable for what another people did to "them" involuntarily. Offending someone never actually hurt anyone.
Wow ... religious folks ... always so quick to start chanting 'Hari Krishna Hari Hari hari ..'.
Can't you religious folks keep to yourselves and leave us alone at airports? Hari Hari Hari all you want, but do it in private.
(And stop molesting little boys you damn pedophiles ... is there any priest/minister/rabbi etc... who hasn't done a little boy?)
If Jerry Sandusky admitted that he molested kids because he felt there would be no retribution in the afterlife because there is no god, then I'm sure atheists would justly assume some blame for his actions. The same way you are blaming religious types.
You atheistic sickos.
Wow Kevin D, that's a solid point. I could use a strapping lad like you on the squad.
ALL PRAISE SANTORUM!
Shame on them, forcing themselves on others. Let them open their database to see who else they forced themselves on..
That would lead to even more embarassment for the Mormon Church. Their motto, after all, is "If you can't see it, it didn't happen."
Seriously, look at the baloney they're spewing about their doctrine denying the priesthood to blacks for over a century.
What this story isn't telling you is that Mormons aren't just interested in the fate of the souls of the deceased but that the bigger their "baptized" family is, the bigger the "planet" they will get in the afterlife, according to their beliefs. It seems that this kind of selfish aspect of the story is entirely missing from media explanations of this repulsive belief.
Another THING – These Post-Dead converted Mormons are only 2nd Class Mormons who become the SERVANTS of Pre-Dead Baptized Mormons. So – Ann Frank is Supposed to be a SERVANT to some Old Guy and his EIGHT Great Grandmothers – Like Mitt Romney.
You are clueless.
oneSTARman, that is totally false. Don't know where you got that.
Joseph Smith taught about the celestial kingdom. In Doctrine and Covenants 132 it is explained that the EXALTED who Performed all the Rituals and Ordinances on EARTH will become GODS and those Post-Dead Mormon Converts become subservient "ministering angels" of the GODS.
Actually, that's exactly why mormons practice baptisms for the dead. Any Christian knows what Christ taught about the importance of baptism. In Mormon doctrine, baptisms for the dead (as mentioned in the Bible itself) allows for every person to have the same opportunities in the afterlife, according to their own agency and choice; it demonstrates the perfect mercy of a perfect Father for every one of his children.
I make my above statement to oneSTARman with the caviat that he is still not quite accurate on his protrayal of mormon belief.
what I don;t understand about the baptism of the dead is if it's main purpose is to make dead unsaved souls enter heaven then why even the need for Satan or Hell? I mean I might as well just pay a mormon some $$ and explicitly tell him to baptise me when I'm dead so I'll NEVER go to Hell no matter what I do or didn;t do.
I mean if someone is baptist after they are dead does that mean they are suddenly teleported from Hell to Heaven?
It must be a real annoying PITA for the Big Red guy with horned seeing people poofing off to heaven on a daily basis from Hell!! he must be like, "DARN Mormons again! I was just about to insert this cactus into Hitler's butt BUT just as I was about to, Mitt Romney baptisit his soul and he got teleported into heaven!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! @$$%^# you Mittens!!!!
Actually it demonstrates the mormon view of God as merciful, and that we are eternally progressing, not sitting on a cloud.
Actually it demonstrates the mormon view of God as merciful, and that we are eternally progressing.
I like the way you think when more people expose the ridiculous people will question
Is there a way to request not to be baptized after I am dead? If I wanted to be Mormon I would be Mormon. I am pagan because I want to be.
send a letter to the LDS church stating you never want to be a mormon and any relative submitting a request for you to be baptised by proxy is going against your will and this is a violation for your rights and a dead person and you will from beyond the grave send a letter to your congressman/woman asking for the LDS church to be proxy baptised satanic
Who cares? The dead cannot consent and they don't care either. Why make a big deal out of something that is someone else's belief. Nobody is "stuck" with anyone. This is THEIR belief. I appreciate the Mormon records and I bless them for saving vital records from all over the world. Thank you, thank you thank you! If they want to baptize my dead Aunt Anna, why should I worry about that. It does not make Aunt Anna a Mormon. She is not standing there! Why be offended? Why spread hate? Just forgive and just let it go and just love one another. That is the only rule isn't it, for us to love one another. Start now.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – That is what this is about. According to Mormon Teaching – these Post-Dead converted Mormons are only 2nd Class Mormons who become the SERVANTS of Pre-Dead Baptized 1st Class Mormons. It is Like the suggestion that Poor School children should be the Lunch Room SERVANTS of the 1% – Like Willard Mittens Romney and his EIGHT Great Grandmothers.
oneSTARman I'll say it again. Your "facts" are completely wrong. God is merciful; everyone has the same opportunity.
People are offended because that's how they feel. Asking people why they feel the way they feel is actually a form of verbal abuse. It denigrates their feelings by demanding an explanation for it. Perhaps you should try just accepting that many, many people feel deeply offended when their loved ones are affiliated with a church as offensive as the Mormon faith.
Personally, I think Mormons baptise the dead because they can't get people to pay attention to them as long as their brains are actually functioning.
The Mormons are responsible for a holocaust too. Look up the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. They murdered settlers and even the US Army was sent after them.
They joined the USA at gunpoint. Half of them, including the Romneys, went to Mexico so they could continue their polygamy.
That's not exactly a holocaust; it's an unfortunate event involving a relatively few people wrongfully attacked by mormons who were paranoid after being driven from New York, to Ohio, to Missouri, to illinois, to Utah, with an extermination order on their heads and thousands of men, women and children murdered along the way. Not quite the same scale.
Besides, what does that have to do with the subject?
LET NO ONE MISTAKE MORMORNISM FOR BIBLICAL CHRISTIANITY. LIKE BEREANS, SEARCH THE BIBLE TO FIND OUT FOR YOURSELVES WHETHER MORMON IDEOLOGY IS COMPATIBLE WITH CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY.GOD YAHWEH HATES SYNCRETISM
Yeah those Mormons believe some crazy stuff! "Normal" people can laugh at how ridiculous it is.
That's exactly how I feel about your religion too.
"YAHWEH HATES SYNCRETISM"
(a) You don't know that. He might love it. You are NOT God's messenger or angel and you don't know His mind.
(b) Turn off your CapsLock. You are 'internet shouting.' It's rude and makes people ignore you.
Begs the cliche, "Holier-than-Thou".
Singling out and alienating a religious group is far more dangerous than their harmless ritual.
Who in "God's" name (pun?) can look at this and argue that religion is a good thing? Of course, not to mention the millions of people who have died over centuries in the name of religion? Seriously people, if you have a religion, give it up, b/c it's getting the way of the rest of us leading, normal, happy lives.
"Who in "God's" name (pun?) can look at this and argue that religion is a good thing? " It's been the source of a lot of moral thought and civilized behavior over the centuries. Jesus-worship was the first religion to argue that God regards the individual as important, not just the tribe or clan; our entire civilization is based on these tenets of 'love your fellowman' and 'try to improve yourself.' Then we founded America, a place where conflicting religions agreed to leave their faiths home and come to the marketplace as equals; the world reeled. England invaded us twice to try and stop it, and we beat them and kept half their soldiers as new Americans. Religion is important, but knowing when to preach and when to hush is what made this country great.
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.