An Arlington priest revealed Monday that he was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan before converting while in prison, and has asked for a temporary leave of absence from ministry.
The Diocese of Arlington released a statement saying that Fr. William Aitcheson, a parochial vicar at St. Leo Catholic Church in Fairfax, Va., wrote an article in the diocesan newspaper “with the intention of telling his story of transformation” from being a Klan member to abandoning his racist beliefs and becoming a Catholic priest. “He left that life behind him 40 years ago and since journeyed in faith to eventually become a Catholic priest,” the diocese said. “He voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well-being of the Church and parish community, and the request was approved.”
In the wake of the recent white nationalist rally at Charlottesville, Va. on August 11-12, Fr. Aitcheson wrote in the Arlington Catholic Herald of his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan and “despicable” acts like burning a cross on someone else’s lawn and writing threatening letters. His article was entitled, “Moving from hate to love with God’s grace.”
According to the Washington Post report of Aitcheson’s arrest in 1977, he was an “exalted cyclops” in the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and was charged with six cross-burnings in Prince George’s County, Md., as well as one count of making bomb threats and two counts of making pipe bombs. The New York Times reported that he was convicted of criminal misdemeanor for burning a cross in the yard of a black family in College Park, Md. and was sentenced to 90 days in prison.
In his article for the Herald, Fr. Aitcheson said that although he was baptized and raised a Catholic, he did not practice the faith as a young man. But after leaving the “anti-Catholic” Klan, he came back to the Church, “a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.” He entered the seminary and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, Nev. in 1988. He came to the Arlington Diocese in 1993.
The Arlington Diocese stated that “there have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Fr. Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington.” “While 40 years have passed, I must say this: I’m sorry. To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry,” he wrote in the Arlington Catholic Herald. “I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington stated that “while Fr. Aitcheson’s past with the Ku Klux Klan is sad and deeply troubling, I pray that in our current political and social climate his message will reach those who support hate and division, and inspire them to a conversion of heart.” “Our Lord is ready to help them begin a new journey, one where they will find peace, love, and mercy. The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God,” he said.
While we believe in God’s forgiveness, we should not forget the sins of our past, Fr. Aitcheson wrote. “Our actions have consequences and while I firmly believe God forgave me — as he forgives anyone who repents and asks for forgiveness — forgetting what I did would be a mistake,” he said.
The recent rallies of white nationalists in Charlottesville, held to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, included Klan members and neo-Nazis, and featured racist chants like “Jew will not replace us” and “blood and soil.” On August 12, a 20-year-old man from Ohio drove a car into the counter-protest to the rallies, killing one and injuring 19.
“The images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget,” Fr. Aitcheson said of the rallies. He wrote that the hate manifested in the rallies “should bring us to our knees in prayer.” Catholics should condemn racism “at every opportunity” and pray for its victims, and pray for the conversion of those holding racist beliefs, he said.
“If there are any white supremacists reading this, I have a message for you: you will find no fulfillment in this ideology. Your hate will never be satisfied and your anger will never subside,” he wrote. “I encourage you to find peace and mercy in the only place where it is authentic and unending: Jesus Christ.”