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Mormon church apologizes for baptisms of Wiesenthal's parents

Published February 14, 2012 7:35 am

Religion • Church member punished after Wiesenthal's parents "baptised."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An LDS Church member last month posthumously baptized the parents of Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor and Jewish rights advocate, and the Los Angeles center named for him is incensed.

"We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon temples," Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center's associate dean, said in a statement on the group's website. "Such actions make a mockery of the many meetings with the top leadership of the Mormon church."

LDS officials in Salt Lake City were quick to apologize Monday, saying that the Utah-based faith "sincerely regret[s] that the actions of an individual member ... led to the inappropriate submission of these names," which were "clearly against the policy of the church."

"We consider this a serious breach of our protocol," spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement, "and we have suspended indefinitely this person's ability to access our genealogy records."

Gary Mokotoff, a Jewish genealogist in New Jersey who has been using the church's massive records collection for decades, is cautiously optimistic about the religion's response. In fact, he was told in writing that the church also suspended access for the culprit's wife.

"If the entire Mormon population finally understands that you will be reprimanded for violating church policies," Mokotoff said in a phone interview, "then it will be effective."

Mokotoff alerted his peers in 1992 about the LDS practice known as "baptism for the dead" in which living people stand in for the deceased to offer that person a chance to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the hereafter. Mormons believe it is their moral obligation to do the temple rituals, while those on the other side can choose whether to accept the action or not.

The proxy baptism practice was deeply offensive to many Jews, who had suffered so greatly for their faith. So Mokotoff, then president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, tried to persuade the LDS Church to remove the names of Holocaust victims from its International Genealogical Index.

Through the years, the church publicly and repeatedly agreed to do so, but the task proved difficult. Many of those names continued to appear in the database. In September 2010, a new Jewish delegation and the LDS Church announced a joint contract about proxy baptisms.

The "breakthrough," as the groups described it, was built on a new computer system that requires Mormons to agree not to submit names of Holocaust victims or celebrities for proxy baptism unless those names are direct ancestors of the submitters. Even then, though, Mokotoff was skeptical that the problem could be solved by a computer program.

"The only way this is going to be stopped is by the church reprimanding individuals doing it — first with a warning, then something stronger," Mokotoff said in 2010, "maybe excommunication."

The Jewish genealogist is pleased to learn about the church's actions against violators, he said Monday, but whether that is enough, "it is too early to tell."

pstack@sltrib.com