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Mormon baptisms of Holocaust victims draw ire

By BRADY McCOMBS
Dec. 22, 2017 at 11:48 p.m.

Helen Radkey gives an interview at her home Nov. 6 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, according to  Radkey, who has spent two decades monitoring the church's massive genealogical database.

SALT LAKE CITY — 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.

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 Utah-based 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 she 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.

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