Radkey reveals church records
SALT LAKE CITY -- Mitt Romney has major headaches named Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
This month, he also had Helen Radkey.
At 1:55 p.m. Feb. 8, Radkey, an excommunicated Mormon who spends her days combing through databases at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library, emailed Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the famed Nazi-hunter.
"FYI, discovered today: Posthumous baptisms for the parents of Simon Wiesenthal," Radkey wrote. "I am collecting evidence, which will be emailed to you, if requested, as long as there is a public stink."
The Wiesenthal Center obliged, and a week later, Radkey followed with the revelation that Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, was also listed in the private Mormon databases as " 'ready' for posthumous rites." This appeared to be a violation of the spirit of the Mormon agreement with Jewish groups not to posthumously baptize Holocaust victims and led to Wiesel's public appeal to Romney to demand that his church stick to its word. All the reports credited Radkey, an independent researcher in Salt Lake City, as the force behind the revelations.
James W. Freston, director of the Public Affairs Council for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Charleston, calls the reports about Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors inaccurate.
"Their names were not submitted for proxy baptism but simply entered into a genealogical database," he said. "The church's system would have rejected those names had they been submitted for baptism."
Not all names submitted to the database are for proxy baptism, he said. "The process is open to encourage church members to engage in a practice that is considered sacred and fundamental to salvation, but this openness and scope sometimes results in violations of church policy."
Radkey, an eccentric and familiar face at the church's sprawling genealogical archive here, has a knack for notoriety.
She has acquired a measure of acclaim for her discovery that Mormons in the Provo, Utah, temple had posthumously baptized Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, during the 2008 presidential campaign, as well as revealing that Joan of Arc, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe also had received proxy baptisms.
In 1995, the Mormon church had reached an agreement with Jewish groups to remove more than 350,000 names of Holocaust victims from their records.
Pursuing her new mission on the library computers, Radkey checked the private Mormon databases for Holocaust victims and still found thousands, including
a record showing that Mormons had posthumously baptized Anne Frank. At Radkey's request, groups such as the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors began to pay her for her research, and she sought to convert to Judaism. "The Jews didn't want me," she said.
Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum of Charleston's Synagogue Emanu-El, said that any posthumous or proxy baptism of Jews has little theological significance.
"My understanding is that once a Jew always a Jew," Rosenbaum said. "Even if a Jew knowingly and willingly coverts to another faith, we still welcome him into our religion with open arms."
Mormons have a right to practice their faith freely, just like all people in the U.S., even if some religious practices offend others, Rosenbaum said.
"You have to consider the feelings of those who are going to be affected," he said. "The people who've passed on, they never asked to be put in this position."
Some Jewish prayer books have included language critical of non-Jews "that in many cases have been taken out because of concerns of insensitivity," Rosenbaum said. "I would hope other faiths would be sensitive to that, just as I would hope Jews would be sensitive to that as well."
Radkey says that in the course of her research into what she describes as the postmortem marriages of the Romney ancestors, which she hopes to turn into a book, the genealogy experts of the library, which is open to the public, have been only polite and helpful. The feeling hasn't always been mutual.
In 2006 and 2009, the library disciplined her for sneaking onto computers used by Mormons who had not logged off their terminals and then spending hours using their accounts to dig through the private church records.
"I don't hack the database," she said. "Let's just say I have a way of accessing it through a confidential Mormon source."
After putting her Romney folders in order, Radkey drove to downtown Salt Lake and Temple Square, where she passed the historic home of Brigham Young. ("Of course, they don't talk about all the wives," she said of Young.) At the library, Radkey logged in for another session of Romney research, next to a man wearing earmuffs and other regulars in a small band of committed database diggers.
"How long have I been working on this?" Radkey asked her friends at the terminals.
"Since we've been in Mormondom," answered another woman with her face inches from the screen. "Forever and ever."
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.