Genealogical pit bull » Ex-Mormon has defenders, critics in quest to eliminate LDS proxy baptisms.
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Helen Radkey sits in her tiny Millcreek apartment amid images of Buddha and Egyptian sun gods, good-luck charms, sacred texts, tarot cards and a makeshift shrine to a Catholic saint, complete with a relic. Her refrigerator is awash in photos of children, grandchildren and friends from around the country and across the globe.
Both bedrooms are piled high with box after box of file folders, evidence of her decadeslong drive to undermine the LDS Church's temple ritual in which living Mormons are baptized for a person who has died.
Each folder contains the name and personal information of an individual who has been posthumously baptized. She found the data through the church's Family History Library, poring over its genealogical records and looking for those people she believes ought not be there -- from Catholic saints to offshoot polygamists to infamous scoundrels such as Adolf Hitler and famous people such as President Barack Obama's mother.
Since 1993, she has garnered widespread media attention with every new find. She traveled to Rome several times to "warn" Vatican officials of the growing warmth between Utah's Mormon and Catholic leaders, reporting proxy baptisms of dead Catholics, including martyrs and saints.
She alerted Jewish genealogists that Mormons were not keeping their 1995 agreement to stop baptizing Holocaust victims.
Radkey has become an irritant to Mormon officials and the church faithful, who wince every time a newspaper reports her latest find in LDS baptismal records.
"I call her the Erin Brockovich of the Mormon/Jewish controversy," says New Jersey resident Gary Mokotoff, past president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies who signed the agreement and feels indebted to Radkey for what he considers impeccable research. "You can defame her any way you want personality-wise, but she's still a whistle-blower."
Radkey's quest to eliminate LDS proxy baptisms may seem an odd obsession for a Catholic-turned-Mormon-turned-New-Ager from Hobart, Australia, but in many ways it fits neatly with the bulldog for justice she always has been.
Radkey descended from Irish Catholics on her father's side and British convicts and free settlers on her mother's. Her mom, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism at her marriage, often took Radkey and her brother to cemeteries, which is where young Helen first developed an interest in genealogy and a reverence for the dead.
Radkey attended Catholic schools, but eventually went looking for another faith. In 1963, two Mormon missionaries knocked on the door where she was a wife and mother. For eight long years, her husband refused to let her join this American-born religion, but Radkey was determined. In 1971, she relinquished the marriage and custody of her son and daughter for a chance to join.
"I gave up everything for the church," she says.
Later that year, Radkey met Stuart Olmstead, an American who was living in Australia. He also joined the LDS Church; they were wed and later "sealed" in a Mormon temple. They had identical twin sons after moving to Sydney, hundreds of miles to the north.
That's where Radkey's sense of fair play kicked in.
In a neighboring LDS congregation, four members were excommunicated after a disagreement with LDS officials in Sydney. The ouster outraged Radkey, who complained loudly about the treatment.
As punishment for speaking out, Radkey says, she and her husband were disfellowshipped, a step just short of excommunication, and stopped attending. Three years later, she condemned blind obedience in a tract called Free Agency in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Australia and distributed 300 to 400 copies to members in the area.
Then it was Radkey's turn to be excommunicated, but she long since had stopped believing in Mormon doctrine. She ultimately came to see LDS teachings as "poppycock" and the church as an oppressive institution, even a cult.
"I'd lost a sense of there being one true church," she recalls, "and began to explore universal principles."
In 2001, Radkey attended the viewing of LDS general authority Loren C. Dunn, a mission president in Sydney during her falling-out with the faith. Standing over Dunn's casket, she said, "I forgive you."
Moving to Utah
On a December 1980 visit to Boston, Radkey heard Neil Diamond's "America" and promptly decided to move here. The family settled in Kentucky, where Olmstead's family lived, but the marriage didn't last.
In 1984, she moved with her sons to the heart of the LDS Church: Utah.
"I had some unresolved concerns with Mormonism," Radkey says. "I thought I could help Mormons who had gone through what I had. I felt like I had to finish something."
She also had a premonition that she would have something to do with Jews.
"The Jewish imprint had been on me for a long time," she says. "I developed a passion for the Holocaust. I have five crates of Holocaust books, took Israeli dancing and even took Hebrew classes."
In Utah, she met Anthony Radkey, who worked in a flour mill and installed windows. Before she would marry him, Radkey insisted the nonpracticing Mormon have his name removed from LDS Church records. That marriage ended in 1992.
While the twin boys developed their athletic prowess, Radkey spent time doing psychic readings, studying various spiritual traditions and occasionally prancing around the house, crooning Diamond's hits.
She applied for and became a minister in the Universal Life Church because, she says, it didn't have a particular dogma, just promoted justice. Plus, she adds, "you can never be disbarred or excommunicated."
Radkey did feel that her boys needed a religious identity, so she sent them to St. Ann Catholic Parish and School in Salt Lake City.
That didn't satisfy her, either. She pulled the twins out of Catholic schools and sent them to Highland High, where they won tennis titles and earned scholarships to Gonzaga, a Catholic university in Spokane, Wash.
"It was an interesting childhood," says Matthew Olmstead, one of her 34-year-old sons and an information-technology-management consultant in Los Angeles. "She was on a crusade ... to single-handedly take down the Mormon religion. She was so consumed by that, we had a hard time relating to it."
Today, Olmstead respects his mother's work against proxy baptisms, but doesn't share her need to fight the practice.
"She sends us e-mails all the time, I feel bad because we can't read it all," he says. "I couldn't care less what Mormons do behind closed doors in their temples. I don't see the impact that [proxy baptism] has. It's all based on a belief system, and, if you don't buy into it, it's not going to move you."
Still, he recognizes it's a cause that keeps his energetic mother going.
"She needs to have a project to keep her busy. If not this, it would have been something else," says Olmstead, who, like all her children, remains close to Radkey. "She's very smart but could have done better if she had gone into business."
Birth of an obsession
In July 1993, just as the twins were graduating from high school, Radkey traveled to the (Jesuit) Martyrs' Shrine in Ontario, Canada. Moved by what she saw, she returned to discover that Mormons had performed proxy baptisms for Gabriel Lalemant and the other martyrs.
Thus began her dogged effort to publicize every posthumous LDS baptism that might offend others' religious sensibilities, beginning with Roman Catholics. In the mid-1990s, she remained focused on Catholic names, reporting findings to the Salt Lake City Diocese's bishop, George H. Niederauer, who dismissed her concerns.
After 1995, when LDS officials agreed to remove more than 350,000 Jewish Holocaust names from their records, Radkey explored whether those names were back on the list. By 2000, she reported some 19,000 names had reappeared.
In September and October 2002, she met with Family History Library officials to offer them her research for a price -- $30,000 and a continuing fee of $18 an hour, according to the Jewish magazine Forward -- but the LDS Church declined.
Instead, the Jewish Holocaust group compensated her for the hours and hours she had spent scrutinizing LDS genealogical records for Jewish-sounding names of people who died in Europe between 1942 and 1945.
Today, when she uncovers in those temple records any names she considers inappropriate or outrageous -- such as Anne Frank, Sen. Edward Kennedy or the recently canonized Catholic saint Father Damien -- she often alerts the press.
"I don't think it's right to impose [LDS] rituals on those who didn't share their beliefs when they were alive," she says. "We should be letting souls rest in peace and let them be who they were."
Mormons believe they have a spiritual mandate to offer the faith to those throughout human history who didn't have a chance to embrace it while they were alive. They see proxy baptisms as invitations, not compulsions. Those who have passed on can either accept or reject the ordinance.
This doctrine - offering salvation to as many as possible - drives the church's genealogical mission.
If Radkey succeeded in scuttling the practice, the church no longer would feel compelled to collect and maintain all those records -- a loss to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
Those most harmed by last year's Vatican edict to stop allowing LDS researchers to copy parish records were, ironically, Catholics.
"Most parishes can't or don't answer letters because they are understaffed and their highest priority is the living, as it should be," Kathy Kirkpatrick, a Quaker and past president of Salt Lake City's professional genealogist association, said at the time. "Most folks don't have the resources to visit a parish in person ... and sometimes even a personal visit doesn't get access to the records."
Not surprisingly, Radkey has defenders and critics -- in and out of the LDS Church. She declines to name any Mormon friends for fear of reprisals against them. But she gladly claims career anti-Mormons Sandra Tanner and Michael Marquardt among her admirers.
Neither of them is as consumed by the proxy-baptism issue, but both support her efforts.
Tanner, who, with her late husband, Jerald, created Utah Lighthouse Ministry to "document problems with the claims of Mormonism and compare LDS doctrines with Christianity," calls Radkey an "indefatigable researcher" who "has done a phenomenal job."
Marquardt, a researcher of early Mormon history, helped Radkey assemble the materials she took to Rome. He praises her work ethic. "She spends hours doing this, looking up names and locations. As far as I know, it's always checked out."
In recent years, Radkey talked about her work at the annual meeting of American Atheists and posted her research findings on mormoncurtain.com, a site for ex-Mormons to share their stories and "recovery."
Radkey's longtime Salt Lake City friend Lynda Marsh sees a softer, gentler side to this genealogical pit bull.
"Helen can come across as looking like a hard woman, but don't be fooled, she's not," Marsh says. "She has a lot of compassion as well. She'll go the extra mile for a person. She did it for me when my husband was sick."
Marsh acknowledges Radkey's persistence can be annoying.
Once she starts talking about one of her pet issues, it's hard for her to stop. She frequently goes on tangents, piling detail upon detail from her encyclopedic mind, often dropping name after name she has discovered in the LDS library system. She cannot resist writing letters of complaint to newspapers on everything from prayer at public meetings and school choirs singing at religious services to the Catholic stance on gay marriage.
"Helen is a very dedicated person, not only to her research projects but to everything she undertakes," says Marsh, a former Mormon who shares Radkey's concerns about proxy baptisms. "Whether working on a job or with mentally disabled people, she gives her all to it. She's very dedicated to detail. What can you say when she's so passionate about it?"
Critics see it differently.
Rabbi Benny Zippel of Salt Lake City's Congregation Bais Menachem is equally distressed by the posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims, believing that a conversion requires a full-fledged, conscious willingness. Any kind of proxy baptism "is morally offensive and deeply hurtful to both the survivors of the Holocaust," he says, "as well as to the souls of those who died and laid down their lives for their faith."
Still, when Radkey came to him for support, he wanted nothing to do with her efforts.
"I don't like nurturing or enhancing negative energy," Zippel says. "I have been here for 18 years, enjoyed a very positive, enriching experience interaction with the LDS Church, with [former] President [Gordon B.] Hinckley and now with President [Thomas S.] Monson. I don't want to get involved with anything that is damaging to other people."
Gordon Remington, a Protestant professional genealogist, appreciates the use of the LDS Family History Library. He is fully aware of the theological reason Mormons gather the data and is not offended by it.
But Remington is offended by any individuals who use the Family History Library for personal and/or professional research yet seek to criticize or undermine the purpose for which the library exists.
"From the standpoint of a professional genealogist," Remington says, "I find that unethical."
Radkey says she is finished digging up questionable proxy baptisms. After completing a writing course at Salt Lake Community College, she plans to pen a screenplay about serial killer Ted Bundy, aka Theodore Robert Cowell.
Although Bundy joined the LDS Church when he was alive, he nonetheless was posthumously baptized in a Mormon temple.
Who discovered this? Helen Radkey.
» The LDS Church's Family History Library, 35 N. West Temple, Salt Lake City, is the largest genealogical library in the world with more than 2 billion names of deceased people.
» It has more than 700 staff and volunteers to assist patrons; nearly 2,000 people visit the library each day.
» The church has some 4,500 family-history centers in 70 countries, with access to many of the resources at the main library.
» The church's Internet site, www.familysearch.org, contains a billion names from more than 110 counties and territories including the 1880 U.S. Census, the 1881 Canadian Census, the 1881 British Census, the Ellis Island database and the Freedman's Bank Records. It is open and available free of charge.