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.”
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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.”