SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon church leaders apologized to the family of Holocaust survivor and Jewish rights advocate Simon Wiesenthal after his parents were posthumously baptized, a controversial ritual that Mormons believe allows deceased people a way to the afterlife but offends members of many other religions.
Wiesenthal died in 2005 after surviving the Nazi death camps and spending his life documenting Holocaust crimes and hunting down perpetrators who remained at large. Jews are particularly offended by an attempt to alter the religion of Holocaust victims, who were murdered because of their religion, and the baptism of Holocaust survivors was supposed to have been barred by a 1995 agreement.
Yet records indicate Wiesenthal's parents, Asher and Rosa Rapp Wiesenthal, were baptized in proxy ceremonies performed by Mormon church members at temples in Arizona and Utah in late January.
In a statement, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center denounced the baptismal rites.
"We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon temples," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the center.
The church immediately apologized, saying it was the actions of an individual member of church – whom they did not name – that led to the submission of Wiesenthal's name.
"We sincerely regret that the actions of an individual member of the church led to the inappropriate submission of these names," Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a statement issued Monday. "We consider this a serious breach of our protocol and we have suspended indefinitely this person's ability to access our genealogy records."
Mormons believe posthumous baptism by proxy allows deceased persons to receive the Gospel in the afterlife. The church believes departed souls can then accept or reject the baptismal rites and contends the offerings are not intended to offend anyone.
Other religions, including the Catholic church, have also publicly objected to the baptism of its members, and it's been widely reported that Mormon and GOP presidential nominee front-runner Mitt Romney's atheist father-in-law Edward Davies was posthumously baptized.
A check of the records by Salt Lake City researcher Helen Radkey showed the baptism occurred in November 1993. The record suggests a family member may have submitted Davies' name, which would be in line with the rules for entering names in the database.
Changes made to the church database in 2010 were intended to better prevent names of Holocaust victims from being submitted for rites.
Radkey found documentation of the baptism of the Wiesenthals last week while conducting regular checks of a church database. Jews have relied on the work of Radkey, a former Mormon, since 1999, although Mormon church officials have publicly questioned her motives for reviewing the database.
On Tuesday she told The Associated Press she periodically checks the database for the Wiesenthal name to gauge whether the latest Mormon efforts to screen the process were working.
Radkey's recent monitoring also turned up a record for Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and several of his relatives.
"None of the three names were submitted for baptism and they would not have been under the church's guidelines and procedures," Purdy said. "The names were simply entered into a genealogical database. Submission for proxy baptism is a separate process."
New Jersey-based Jewish genealogy experts Gary Mokotoff said publicity about the Wiesenthal baptism will help solve the problem, which he believes is likely limited to a small number of overzealous church members who believe they are providing a service to their church.
"If the word gets out that there are consequences, they'll stop," said Mokotoff, who has also participated in talks with Mormon leaders. "But no one has a right to involve other person's families in their religion. That's basically what's wrong about the whole concept."