The Mormon Church apologized Tuesday for a "serious breach of protocol" after it was discovered that the parents of the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal were posthumously baptized as Mormons. The church also acknowledged that one of its members tried to baptize posthumously three relatives of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
The efforts, at least in Wiesenthal's case, violated the terms of an agreement that the church signed in 1995, in which it agreed to stop baptizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Wiesenthal and Wiesel gained fame for careers spent grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, Wiesenthal by hunting down war criminals, Wiesel by writing books that became part of the canon of 20th century literature.
Coming at a time when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in the public eye as perhaps never before, the revelations could prove embarrassing — and, conceivably, influence perceptions of presidential candidate Mitt Romney's faith.
Posthumous baptism is common in the Mormon Church. The purpose is to ensure that ancestors can join church members in the afterlife. Individual Mormons submit to the church the names of persons they wish to have baptized, then undergo baptism "by proxy."
However, the practice has sometimes offended those of other faiths whose ancestors are baptized by proxy by enthusiastic Mormons. That is especially true of the families of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, whose outcries prompted the 1995 agreement. Although the Mormon Church now says its policy limits posthumous baptisms to direct ancestors of its members, it acknowledges that the policy is sometimes violated.
The latest revelations came from Helen Radkey, a former Mormon who independently researches Mormon genealogy. Radkey is perhaps best known for discovering in 2009 that President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, had been baptized after her death.
The church acknowledged that individual Mormons had been baptized on behalf of Wiesenthal's parents and that other members were apparently preparing to do so for Wiesel's three relatives.
"We sincerely regret that the actions of an individual member of the church" led to the baptism of Wiesenthal's parents, Mormon Church spokesman Matthew Purdy said. ""We consider this a serious breach of our protocol and we have suspended indefinitely this person's ability to access our genealogy records."
In the case of Wiesel's family, the process was apparently halted in its early stages.
The church did not identify the members responsible in either case.
Wiesenthal's mother, Rosa, died in 1942 in the Belzek extermination camp. His father, Asher, had died earlier, in combat in World War I. Simon Wiesenthal died in 2005.
"If Simon were alive today, it's hard to really describe what his reaction would be," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Cooper described the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism as a "beautiful gesture," when done within Mormon families, but said it was inappropriate and offensive to baptize the Jewish dead, especially those who died in the Holocaust.
"Their physical lives were taken, their communities were destroyed and now somebody is coming along, however well-intentioned, and is suggesting that they're going to rebrand their souls," he said. "It just doesn't compute."