In Mormon files, researcher Helen Radkey seeks to cause a headache for Romney

Tom Smart/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Helen Radkey, excommunicated from the Mormon church, is now a familiar presence at its genealogy research center in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney has major headaches named Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

This month, he also had Helen Radkey.

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At 1:55 p.m. on Feb. 8, Radkey, an excommunicated Mormon who spends her days combing through databases at the church’s Family History Library, ­e-mailed 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 e-mailed 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.

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 had also received proxy baptisms.

Now Radkey’s energies are directed at a new area of research, which she hopes will cause a new headache for Romney: the posthumous plural marriages of his ancestors. She calls this “Romney’s polygamy tree.”

* * *

On a recent afternoon in Radkey’s apartment on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, a menorah and Virgin Mary statuette stood atop the refrigerator, a Buddha sat under a lamp and Egyptian sun gods rested on a coffee table. A book called “The Animal Wise Tarot” helped explain the preponderance of wolf posters hanging on the walls alongside a framed “universal life church minister” certification.

“The only thing I won’t talk about is my metaphysical work,” Radkey, 69, wearing a red sweater and black beret, said in her Australian accent. She explained that it would be used by the church to discredit her research. She preferred to leaf through stacks of manila folders labeled “Gaskell Romney, grandfather,” “Archi­bald Newell Hall, great-great grandfather,” and “Parley Parker Pratt, great-great grandfather.”

Radkey, who is a regular guest on the weekly cable show “Polygamy: What Love Is This?” (“a live, call-in television talk show dedicated to the subject of polygamy and Mormon fundamentalism”), has decided that the world should know about what she considers the posthumous love life of Romney’s forebears.

This is because, she said, “there’s a double standard” in which Mormons have renounced polygamy for the living, but “allowed plural marriages for the dead.”

More important for her, she found Romney’s depiction of polygamy — he called it “bizarre” and “awful” — in bad taste. “How dare he say that polygamy was horrible when it was what his ancestors believed?” she said. “I believe you should honor your bloodline. I have convicts in my bloodline. I don’t reject them.”

* * *

Posthumous baptisms are a sacred ritual that Mormons believe offer a second shot at salvation in the afterlife to those who never received Mormon baptism on Earth.

The church insists that there is no polygamy in the afterlife. “We believe that marriage is the most important relationship in this life and can continue after this life when performed in a temple. Temple marriages — also known as sealings — are performed only for those married in this life,” said Michael Purdy, a church spokesman.

Radkey, however, has produced documents from private church databases that suggest many prominent Mormons, including Romney’s ancestors, have been sealed to multiple spouses after they died.

This obsession with clandestine Mormon rituals is four decades in the making for a woman about whom the Salt Lake Tribune asked in a 2009 profile: “Who is Helen Radkey and why is she out to get the LDS Church?”

In 1963, two Mormon missionaries knocked on her door in Hobart, Australia, opening an eight-year passage to Mormonism that eventually ended her marriage and cost her custody of her two children. She met her second husband, an American, at his own conversion baptism, but later fell out with church authorities and was excommunicated in 1978.

Two years later, the Tasmanian arrived in Boston with her husband and took in a showing of the movie “The Jazz Singer,” starring Neil Diamond. She described the viewing as a transformative, almost religious experience that persuaded her to stay in America. “It was Neil,” she said. “We’re coming to America! Neil had this sound, and I wanted this sound.”

Her second marriage ended in divorce, and in 1984 she moved with her young twins to the capital of the Mormon church, Salt Lake City.

“I wanted to research Mormonism,” she said.

She bounced around from religion to religion, and soon after her third marriage fell apart, visited the shrine of Gabriel Lalemant, a 17th-century Canadian Jesuit who she believes was her son in a past life. (She still keeps a shrine to him, complete with a relic, in her bedroom.) She was thus appalled to discover at the library that Mormons had performed a proxy baptism for Lalemant.

“I started to collect rigmarole, proxy baptisms and sealings on famous people and saints,” she said. Her research resulted in an April 1994 Associated Press article headlined “Mormons on Their Way to Baptizing Everyone Who Ever Lived.” She followed up with a short letter published in the Salt Lake Tribune reporting on the vicarious baptism of St. Patrick. “I propose that those of us who are proud of our Irish Catholic heritage raise an extra glass of the old bubbly to St. Paddy on March 17,” she wrote.

Radkey took three trips to the Vatican in unsuccessful attempts to drum up interest about the Mormon proxy baptisms of Catholic saints. Dejected, she returned to her Salt Lake apartment, where she underwent an epiphany when one of her twin sons brought home a Jewish girl from college.

“I said, ‘I’ve had enough of the Vatican,’ ” she recalled. “I’m going to help the Jews.”

* * *

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 her 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.

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.”

 
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