By JENNIFER DOBNER, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mormon church leaders apologized to the family of Holocaust survivor and Jewish rights advocate Simon Wiesenthal after his parents were posthumously baptized in a Mormon temple ritual.
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.
Records indicate his 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.
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.
"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."
The name of the individual who submitted the names of the Wiesenthals for baptism was not released. The Associated Press could not independently verify whether the church member had been disciplined.
Names used in the rites are submitted to the database by church members conducting genealogical research. The rites are performed irrespective of connections to any faith tradition.
The Catholic church has also publicly objected to the baptism of its members, but Jews are particularly offended by an attempt to alter the religion of Holocaust victims, who were murdered because of their religion.
The baptism of Holocaust survivors was supposed to have been barred by a 1995 agreement. At the time, it was discovered the names of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims had been entered into the database. Still, some submissions continued.
Changes made to the church database in 2010 were also intended to better prevent names of Holocaust victims from being submitted for rites.
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.
Cooper, who has participated in talks on the issue with Mormon church officials, said any further discussion of the problem seems useless.
"The only way such insensitive practices would finally stop is if church leaders finally decided to change their practices and policies on posthumous baptisms, a move which this latest outrage proves that they are unwilling to do," Cooper said.
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."
Still, Mokotoff notes that only continued monitoring of the database will show whether church rules and discipline work.
Salt Lake City researcher Helen 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."
It's also 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 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.