LDS baptisms of Holocaust victims continue despite church’s efforts

This Nov. 6, 2017, file photo shows Helen Radkey at her home in Holladay, Utah. Mormons are posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims as well as grandparents of public figures like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Steven Spielberg, despite church rules intended to restrict the ceremonies to a member's ancestors. | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mormons are posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims as well as grandparents of public figures like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Steven Spielberg, despite church rules intended to restrict the ceremonies to a member’s ancestors, according to a researcher who has spent two decades monitoring the church’s massive genealogical database.

The discoveries made by former Mormon Helen Radkey and shared with The Associated Press likely will bring new scrutiny to a deeply misunderstood practice that has become a sensitive issue for the church. The church, in a statement, acknowledged the ceremonies violated its policy and said they would be invalidated, while also noting it’s created safeguards in recent years to improve compliance.

In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, flowers bloom in front of LDS Salt Lake Temple at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. Posthumous baptisms are performed at the church’s temples around the globe. | AP Photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

Proxy baptisms are tied to a core church teaching that families spend eternity together, but the baptisms do not automatically convert dead people to Mormonism. Under church teachings, the rituals provide the deceased a choice in the afterlife to accept or reject the offer of baptism.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only major religion that baptizes the dead, and the ritual has contributed to struggles by the faith to combat the mischaracterization of its beliefs.

The church’s stance on family and the afterlife is behind a massive collection of genealogical records the church compiles from around the world and makes available to the public through its website www.familysearch.org. Proxy baptisms are recorded in a password-protected part of the database accessible only to church members.

The ceremonies first drew public attention in the 1990s when it was discovered they were performed on a few hundred thousand Holocaust victims, which Jewish leaders condemned as grossly insensitive.

The posthumous baptizing of Holocaust victims reopens Jewish wounds from being forced in the past to convert to Christianity or face death or deportation, Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff said.

The more [Radkey] digs, the more she uncovers,” Mokotoff said. “It’s not like a chance circumstance.”

After discussions with Mokotoff and other Jewish leaders, the LDS church in 1995 established a rule barring baptisms of Holocaust victims except in rare cases where they are direct ancestors. It also bars proxy baptisms on celebrities.

But periodic controversies erupted when new proxy baptisms were found listed in the church’s genealogical database, including Radkey’s 2012 discovery of one performed on Anne Frank. The church apologized then, sent a letter to members reiterating its guidelines and announced the creation of a firewall aimed at preventing the inappropriate use of proxy baptisms.

“The church cares deeply about ensuring these standards are maintained,” spokesman Eric Hawkins said in the latest statement.

In recent years, it has implemented additional safeguards, including adding four full-time staffers who watch the database and block baptisms on restricted names, he said. That includes a list of Holocaust victims sent each month by a Jewish human rights organization in Los Angeles.

Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology who studies Mormonism at the University of Tampa, said Mormons are striving to baptize everyone who has ever lived to help get non-Mormons out of “spirit prison” in the afterlife and receive exaltation.

One reason for performing the ritual on Holocaust victims is that their names are easy to find in government records, which creates an efficient way to quickly baptize more people, said Cragun, who was raised Mormon but no longer belongs to the church.

The baptisms of public figures are likely based on two factors, he added. First, people naturally think about celebrities more often because they see them on TV and in movies or hear them on the radio. Secondly, Mormons are similar to other social groups in that they like to claim famous people as their own.

Radkey, who left the LDS church in the mid-1970s and was later excommunicated after publicly criticizing it, was blocked from the part of the database that shows the baptisms until recently getting a login from a Mormon friend. The suburban Salt Lake City woman has dedicated countless hours to researching proxy baptisms because she believes people’s religious preferences should be respected even after they’re dead.

Printouts and screenshots of Radkey’s latest research show that in the past five years, proxy baptisms were performed on at least 20 Holocaust victims.

They also were performed on Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe; the mother of Queen Elizabeth II; and grandparents of Kim Kardashian and Carrie Fisher and U.S. politicians Joe Biden, John McCain and Mike Pence.

Radkey said she found no evidence of ancestral ties to Mormons.

Mokotoff said Radkey’s findings show the church isn’t doing enough to police the practice.

But Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the former national director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he’s seen firsthand that the church takes seriously preventing Holocaust baptisms and said leaders are acting in good faith to honor the agreement.

Greenebaum was brought on by the church to help remedy the issue about seven years ago and receives monthly reports from the database team about potential Holocaust baptism attempts. He estimates they stop five to 12 attempts each month. That fact that only 20 slipped through in a five-year period is a testament to how much money, time and effort the church has devoted to upgrading its computing systems to detect and block unauthorized baptisms.

I’d like to own the baseball team that batted that well,” Greenebaum said. “They’re seriously doing their work.”

There also was a new attempt to baptize the L.A. Jewish organization’s namesake, Holocaust survivor and “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal, which LDS officials flagged as needing permission.

That type of flagging means a baptism is blocked until the person seeking to perform it can prove a direct familial relationship, Hawkins said. It shows the safeguards are working, he said.

Hawkins added that while some suggest certain names should be deleted from the database, church officials need them there so they can monitor for unauthorized baptisms.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center previously asked that Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, be removed from the database, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, its founder and dean. Hier said he plans to send a letter to Mormon officials asking that his name be removed again.

“They may mean well, but it’s insulting to Jews, and it would be insulting to Mr. Wiesenthal,” Hier said. “He lived a life of good deeds, and he doesn’t need any assistance in getting to heaven.”

Radkey also uncovered attempts to baptize people still alive or recently dead such as O.J. Simpson and Charles Manson, as well as mass shooters Stephen Paddock and Devin Patrick Kelley. Those requests were blocked and flagged as “not ready” or in need of more information.

Posthumous baptisms are performed at the church’s 159 temples around the globe, mostly by young people. Members are escorted to a decorative baptismal font resting on statutes of 12 oxen. An adult or older teen male reads a short prayer and the member — representing the dead relative — is immersed in water.

Each baptism is recorded in the database.

At a conference this year, top LDS leaders stressed the importance of proxy baptisms — saying God wants all his children “home again, in families and in glory” — and encouraged young members to get involved. The church has nearly 16 million members worldwide.

“Temple work is an act of love,” said Hawkins, adding, “It is a selfless work that builds deep connections to our forebears and a love for God and his children.”

Written by BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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14 Comments

  • DRT December 23, 2017 at 7:53 am

    SMH…

  • ladybugavenger December 23, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Red flag of a cult.

    That’s not how salvation works.

  • theone December 23, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Religion, the fairy tale that has the power to make people do crazy things.
    Time to grow up and stop this delusional nonsense. There is no god, no afterlife deal with it…

    • ladybugavenger December 24, 2017 at 12:05 pm

      We do agree on the topic of religion.

      There is a God.

      Merry Christmas theone!

      My Christmas present to the readers is this:
      theone is pronounced….thie (as in thief) own, thie own.
      and not…the one.

      You’re welcome 😁

  • Geoff December 23, 2017 at 10:00 am

    Helen Radkey is NOT a reliable source of information regarding Mormonism or the LDS. She is a bitter ex communicant who was ousted with other Feminist agitators like Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. You may as well post the opinion of a KKK member regarding Blacks.

    • norton December 23, 2017 at 1:16 pm

      Just like we should only take information about Scientology from L. Ron Hubbard, right?

    • Real Life December 23, 2017 at 2:39 pm

      So she was ousted from your cult, for being pro women? And because of that she is just a trouble maker who knows nothing about the cult she was once part of? Okee dokee.

  • Chris December 23, 2017 at 11:51 am

    and Mormons are puzzled about why they are regarded as weird by mainstream Christians, and indeed by every other major religion.

  • comments December 23, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Besides the certain things I admire about mormon culture, when it comes down to it, they are a cult. They actually aren’t christians, and they put Joseph Smith as more important than Jesus. They don’t even call Jesus by name any longer. They simply refer to him as “the savior”, which I find strange. They believe they get to become gods after they die if they were good little mormons and paid a full tithe all their lives, except the women don’t get to be gods; they get to be the polygamous wives of the men gods. The men gods receive their own planet as well as hoards of polygamous wives. They also believe in “spiritual sex”, and this being the way new souls are made. The men gods copulate with their many spiritual polygamous wives and birth a whole bunch of new souls to populate new planets, and this cycle repeats itself over and over ad infinitum. It is a very very strange doctrine. I believe it was founded as a sex cult. It’s moved away from that in modern times, but still maintains the odd cultish beliefs. I’m an on-the-books mormon myself so I’m very knowledgeable of it. If any of you LDS’ers deny this stuff you obviously don’t know your religion very well.

    • ladybugavenger December 23, 2017 at 8:59 pm

      huh? Lol

      Yep, that’s what they believe and they should remove Jesus’ name ouf of their cult. Instead it should read, LDS- latter day saints of Joseph Smith

      • ladybugavenger December 23, 2017 at 9:02 pm

        The church of Joseph Smith*

  • QBean December 23, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    I lost all interest in genealogy when I discovered that a stranger was able to access our family records and to have “the work” done for my deceased brother without his living wife’s permission. We were told that the church had no way to determine who it was that submitted the request; I don’t believe that for a second.

  • PlanetU December 23, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    Gordon Hinckley said in an interview years ago, “we’re not a weird people.” That says it all. There are no prophets on earth and the mormons need to dig a little deeper into all the hocus pocus. Where are the golden plates? And Planet Kolob????? Planet Utah.

  • Waid December 24, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Ignorance & superstition reign supreme in Mo-land — land of the “brainwashed from birth.”

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