McLEAN, VA (AP) – A Roman Catholic priest in Virginia is taking a leave of absence after disclosing he once burned crosses as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Father William Aitcheson, a priest in the diocese of Arlington, described how he belonged to the Klan as a young man in a column published Monday in The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese’s newspaper.
“My actions were despicable. When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else,” he wrote.
Aitcheson, 62, said that 40 years have passed since he was in the Klan, but the images from this month’s violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville reminded him that “we cannot forget, we should not forget.”
“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,” Aitcheson wrote.
The diocese noted that Aitcheson “voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well being of the Church and parish community.”
In a statement, Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge called Aitcheson’s past with the Klan troubling, but said he hopes his story of transformation will help others.
“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,” Burbidge wrote.
Aitcheson was ordained as a priest in 1988 by the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, and has been assigned to the Arlington Diocese since 1993, most recently serving at St. Leo the Great in Fairfax.
In his article, Aitcheson wrote that his membership in the Klan is public information, but rarely comes up.
Indeed, Aitcheson was convicted on criminal charges in 1977 after the cross-burnings, one of which drew a response from President Ronald Reagan years later.
Reagan paid a visit in 1982 to the home of Phillip and Barbara Butler – Aitcheson had burned a cross on their lawn after the Butlers moved to a mostly white neighborhood in College Park, Maryland. Reagan’s visit came a week after a judge ordered Aitcheson to pay the Butlers $23,000 in damages.
Diocese spokesman Billy Atwell said the diocese knew about Aitcheson’s past with the Klan when he arrived in 1993, but “just learned this weekend about the civil suit from 40 years ago and will be working with Fr. Aitcheson to ensure he meets all of his legal and moral obligations to make restitution.”
Aitcheson was sentenced to 90 days in jail in 1977 after a series of criminal charges involving allegations that he was involved in multiple cross-burnings, including the Butlers’ home, and had threatened to kill Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr.