Mormons have recently posthumously baptised at least 20 Holocaust victims, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and the Queen Mother, according to a researcher who has spent two decades monitoring the church’s massive genealogical database.
Baptisms have been attempted – but blocked – for Charles Manson, Stephen Paddock and Devin Patrick Kelley. Paddock was the gunman who killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 in Las Vegas in October. Kelley killed 25 and wounded 20 in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last month.
The grandparents of public figures like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Hillary Clinton and Steven Spielberg have also been baptised, despite church rules intended to restrict such ceremonies to the ancestors of church members. Ancestors of Kim Kardashian, Carrie Fisher, Joe Biden and John McCain were also baptised.
The researcher, Helen Radkey, is a former Mormon who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1970s and was excommunicated after publicly criticising it. She was blocked from the baptisms section of the massive collection of genealogical records the Utah-based church makes available to the public through its website, familysearch.org, until she was given a login by a friend.
Printouts and screenshots show that in the past five years, proxy baptisms were performed on at least 20 Holocaust victims. Radkey said she found no evidence of ancestral ties to Mormons in those baptisms or in those linked to famous people.
Her discoveries will bring new scrutiny to a practice that has become a sensitive issue for the church. In a statement, the church acknowledged the ceremonies violated its policy and said they would be invalidated.
It had created safeguards in recent years to improve compliance, it said. The requests for baptisms for such figures as Manson, Paddock and Kelley were blocked and flagged as “not ready” or in need of more information.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only major religion that baptises the dead, and the ritual has contributed to struggles to combat what it says is the mischaracterisation of its beliefs.
Proxy 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 ceremonies first drew public attention in the 1990s, when it was discovered they were performed on hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims. Such baptisms reopen wounds from Jews being forced in the past to convert to Christianity or face death or deportation, Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff said.
In 1995, after discussions with Mokotoff and other Jewish leaders, the LDS church established a rule barring baptisms of Holocaust victims except in rare cases where they were direct ancestors of Mormons. It also barred proxy baptisms on celebrities.
Controversies have erupted periodically since then. In 2012, Radkey discovered a baptism performed on Anne Frank. The church apologised, 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, the church has implemented additional safeguards, Hawkins said, including adding four full-time staffers who watch the database and block baptisms on restricted names. That includes a list of Holocaust victims sent each month by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Mokotoff said Radkey’s latest findings show the church is not doing enough. But Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a former national director of inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he had seen firsthand that the church took seriously preventing Holocaust baptisms.
Greenebaum was brought in 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 each month. That fact that only 20 slipped through in a five-year period was a testament to how much money, time and effort the church has devoted to detecting and blocking unauthorised baptisms, he said.
There was a new attempt to baptise the Holocaust survivor and “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal, which LDS officials flagged as needing permission. Hawkins said that showed the safeguards were working.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center previously asked that its namesake, who died in 2005, be removed from the database, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, its founder and dean. Hier said he planned to repeat the request.
“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.”
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, 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.
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