A researcher who has spent years uncovering the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' controversial practice of posthumous proxy baptisms of Jews -- and of Holocaust victims in particular -- recently discovered that some Mormons had proposed the ritual even for a famous Holocaust survivor still living.
Helen Radkey, a former Mormon who lives in Salt Lake City, discovered on Friday on a genealogy website restricted to Mormons that some individuals had submitted the name of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as "ready" for a posthumous proxy baptism. The names of Wiesel's father, who perished in the Holocaust, and his maternal grandfather had also been proposed for proxy baptism, according to Radkey. By Monday, the records had been changed to read "not available," Radkey said. This discovery comes despite an agreement by the church to stop the ritual of proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims.
On Monday Lyman Kirkland, a spokesman for the Mormon Church, downplayed Radkey's finding. "None of the three names were submitted for baptism and they would not have been under the Church's guidelines and procedures," he wrote via email. "The names were simply entered into a genealogical database. Submission for proxy baptism is a separate process."
"Regarding a name of a living individual on the database, the submitter mistakenly entered information into a field that indicated that individual was deceased. Once it was determined that this person is still living, that name was removed, since we do not include information on living persons in our database."
When asked about Radkey's finding of Wiesel's deceased father's name in the database, Kirkland did not have an explanation. Kirkland said only direct descendants of a deceased individual may submit his or her names for proxy baptism in a temple.
Previous discoveries of proxy baptisms of Jews over the past 18 years have outraged Jewish leaders. Such baptisms are especially problematic since so many Jewish people over the centuries had been forced to convert to Christianity against their will and murdered or expelled from countries when they did not.
Negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 for the church to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons. After this, Radkey found that members of the Church of Latter-day Saints had failed to adhere to the agreement. A subsequent 2010 pact resulted in a promise by the Mormon Church to at least prevent inappropriate proxy baptism requests for Holocaust victims -- although not of all Jews.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explains it carries out the practice of proxy baptisms "because all who have lived on the earth have not had the opportunity to be baptized by proper authority during life on earth, baptisms may be performed by proxy, meaning a living person may be baptized in behalf of a deceased person. Baptisms for the dead are performed by Church members in temples throughout the world."
"The person acting as a proxy uses only the name of the deceased," according to the church, leaving the "mortal remains of the deceased" undisturbed. "To prevent duplication the Church keeps a record of the deceased persons who have been baptized."
Just because a name of an individual is submitted for a proxy baptism doesn't mean that the ritual takes place. "Such baptisms can only be performed in special fonts in Mormon Temples," the BBC has reported. "Women act as proxies for women and men for men. There are witnesses present and a proper record is kept, although the ceremony does not make the person for whom the baptism is performed a Mormon."
Radkey also discovered last month in this restricted Mormon database that church members in Utah, Arizona and Idaho had baptized the long-dead parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose mother was murdered in the Belzec death camp.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement on Thursday, saying it was "outraged that such insensitive actions continue" and that they "make a mockery" of numerous meetings between church and Jewish leaders aimed at ending the "unwanted and unwarranted posthumous baptisms of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Holocaust."
Church officials apologized Monday for the baptisms, calling them "a serious breach of our protocol," according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
The latest revelations come as Mitt Romney's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and a hit Broadway musical have turned a spotlight on the church, its practices and on the overall beliefs of Mormons, including the practice of posthumous baptisms, for a wide variety of people, not exclusively Jews.
Of course, Wiesel, who was born in 1928, is still very much alive. And at 83, the author of the classic Holocaust memoir "Night," in which he recounts his helplessness as he watched his father die at Buchenwald, is unlikely to appreciate that he is "ready" be baptized after he passes away.
Gary Mokotoff, a prominent Jewish genealogist who took part in the negotiations to halt baptisms with the Mormon Church in 1995, wrote an item in his genealogy newsletter about a meeting to discuss the issue attended by Jewish leaders, including Wiesel, three or four years ago:
"Wiesel was unfamiliar with the controversy. When he heard about the Mormon ritual and that it included Holocaust victims, he had a puzzled look on his face and then uttered something to the effect that there was a simple solution to the problem: 'Let them change their religion.' The suggestion is not as incredulous as some might think. Posthumous baptism of all dead people is not one of the original beliefs of Mormonism. At the start it was limited to ancestors and perhaps close relatives and friends. In 1918, the President of the Church had a revelation that it should be extended to the entire human race. Perhaps it is time for the Church to reevaluate the practice; it is time for another revelation. Nobody has the right to involve other people's families in their religion."
Wiesel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.