SALT LAKE CITY — Despite strict safeguards and rules, some Mormons have vicariously baptized at least 20 Holocaust victims over the past five years, according to a researcher who gained access to the database with another person's login.
Church leaders swiftly moved to cancel the baptisms and noted the work done to help members understand church policy.
"These ordinances were submitted against church policy and therefore have been invalidated," said Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Helen Radkey, a Universal Life Church minister and former Mormon who rejects the practice of baptism for the dead, found the names of the 20 Holocaust victims as well as the grandparents of celebrities in the system. She said the key problem is the submission of improper names.
"Members are not following the rules," she said. "It's got to be the church's job to find out who these submitters are."
In a 1995 agreement with Jewish leaders, LDS leaders agreed to remove the names of Jewish Holocaust victims from its International Genealogical Index and continue to remove names of deceased Jews when submitted improperly in the future.
The church spent $500,000 removing Jewish names from its database as part of the 1995 agreement, according to an online explanation of temple baptisms published a decade ago.
The church maintains a database of names that require a direct family connection before temple work can be requested or performed and pays four full-time staffers at FamilySearch to watch for them, Hawkins said. The database grows each month with submissions of Holocaust victim names from the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
"There are instances when it is perfectly appropriate for a member to request or do temple work for a celebrity or public figure, including victims of the Holocaust. This would be the case for someone who is a direct descendant," Hawkins said.
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the former national director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, watches the LDS database on behalf of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He has asked church leaders to regularly remind Mormons about the church policy.
He defended the LDS Church, saying the number of names found by Radkey "are infinitesimal" in scope, that the church has "an astonishingly good record" and that the process he oversees is working.
"As somebody who's been involved at this level for many years," Greenebaum said, "I find it sort of extraordinary that someone is still wanting to say that the church is not acting in good faith, because I think it is acting in extraordinarily good faith."
Greenebaum has been watching the church for more than a dozen years at the request of the late Ernest Michel, an Auschwitz survivor who worked on the 1995 agreement. The LDS Church sends Greenebaum a monthly report on submissions of Holocaust victims and updates him on how each case is resolved.
The First Presidency told all church members in a 2012 letter that they "must not submit" the names of Holocaust victims and celebrities for proxy temple ordinances unless they are direct descendents. Those who ignore or abuse the policy are subject to the loss of "family history research, temple or membership privileges," Hawkins said.
"Church members are repeatedly educated not to touch the names of Holocaust victims," said Noel Reynolds, a Mormon scholar and former president of the faith's Mount Timpanogos Temple.
Reynolds said the church's system provides a constant reminder.
"Every time a church member submits a name for temple work," he said, "they have to check a box that verifies that this is someone they are authorized to do work for and that it's not to their knowledge a Holocaust victim. You have to check that box on every single name, individually."
Still Radkey is critical.
"I think some Jews are making fools of themselves saying everything's hunky-dory with the Mormons," she said.
Radkey said Mormons should remember what Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff told the Associated Press, that vicarious baptism of Holocaust victims recalls painful history when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or face deportation or death.
For Mormons, "the notion of coerced conversion is utterly contrary to church doctrine" because free will is guaranteed by God. When Mormons perform a vicarious baptism, Reynolds said, "they are giving a person who has already passed on an opportunity to respond to the gospel should they so choose."
The church sponsors FamilySearch, the largest genealogy organization in the world, with 5,000 family history centers in 129 countries and an online database of 5.84 billion names.
"Temple work is an act of love," Hawkins said. "Members believe that they can offer the blessings of salvation to their ancestors through vicarious work performed in temples, including baptism and marriage. This is done as a member researches and identifies their ancestors and then enters the temple to serve as proxy on behalf of their deceased relatives. It is a selfless work that builds deep connections to our forebears and a love for God and his children."