Rev. William Aitcheson, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington VA, has asked for a temporary leave of absence from his ministry as a Roman Catholic priest. It was following the publication of an article he wrote, which detailed his "story of transformation” from being a member of the racist and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, the his request was granted. According to a statement from the diocese, “He left that life behind him 40 years ago and since journeyed in faith to eventually become a Catholic priest.” The statement added, 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.”
Aitcheson's article appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald after the August 12 clashes between white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville VA. It is titled, "Moving from hate to love with God's grace." A woman was killed in a vehicular attack in the incident. The priest referred to his former membership in the Klan and to engaging in “despicable” acts such as burning a cross and writing threatening letters.
Aitcheson was arrested in 1977, according to the Washington Post, which reported that he was an “exalted cyclops” in the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the Klan. He was charged with six cross-burnings in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He was also charged with making bomb threats and two counts of making pipe bombs. The New York Times reported at the time that he was later convicted of criminal misdemeanor for the burning of a cross in the yard of a black family in College Park, Maryland. He was sentenced to 90 days in prison.
Aitcheson wrote in the Arlington Catholic article that he had been baptized in the Catholic Church and raised in that faith. However, he did not practice the faith as he grew older. After leaving the “anti-Catholic” Klan, Aitcheson returned to the faith of his baptism, which was a development that he wrote is “a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.” After graduating from seminary, he was ordained to the priesthood and incardinated in the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1988. In 1993, Aitcheson came to the Arlington Diocese.
According to a statement from the Arlington Diocese, “there have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Fr. Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington.”
Aitcheson wrote: “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: “I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”
Arlington 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,” Burbridge stated.
Aitcheson wrote that God does forgive, but that believers should not forget the sins of their past. “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.
Referring to rallies and incidents involving the Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, he said: “The images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget.” Aitcheson wrote that the hate revealed at the rallies “should bring us to our knees in prayer.” Catholics should condemn racism “at every opportunity,” he wrote, pray for its victims and for the conversion of racists. “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.”
Rev. Gordon Macrae, a Catholic priest who has been in prison for more than a decade, responded to Spero News on the news about Aitcheson:
"The celebrated author and Catholic convert, Joseph Pearce, belonged to the Aryan Brotherhood while he was in prison and before he converted. His reflections on his own attitudes and racist gestures from a former life are today widely celebrated and held up as an example of personal redemption and metanoia. Why can this be true of Joseph Pearce, but not Father Aitcheson? It is clear from this article that he has repented of his erroneous beliefs of 40 years ago. I have written of this double standard that is today routinely applied to the past mistakes of Catholic priests who are this culture's scapegoats and whipping boys. See my article, "Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests".