Va. Priest Discloses Past in KKK, Takes Leave of Absence - NBC Boston
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Va. Priest Discloses Past in KKK, Takes Leave of Absence

"To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry," he wrote

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    A Virginia priest is taking a leave of absence after he admitted Monday that he was previously a member of the Ku Klux Klan who burned crosses on lawns. "My actions were despicable," Father William Aitcheson wrote in his diocese's newsletter. "When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else." But as News4's Mark Segraves reports, Aitcheson omitted the fact that he never paid restitution that he owed to his victims.

    (Published Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017)

    A Virginia priest took a leave of absence on Monday after he admitted that he was previously a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

    Father William Aitcheson, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, burned a cross on an African-American couple's lawn in College Park, Maryland, in the 1970s. 

    Aitcheson, 62, wrote about his past Klan affiliation Monday in The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese's newspaper. He currently is an associate pastor at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax, Virginia.

    “The images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget. The reality is, we cannot forget, we should not forget," he wrote in The Arlington Catholic Herald. “To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”

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    Aitcheson wrote in the essay that images from violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired him to speak out. But a reporter's inquiry may have played a role. 

    The diocese said in a statement issued Wednesday that a "freelance reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner" contacted the diocese and said she knew that Aitcheson's name matched that of the man convicted of cross-burnings. 

    "Fr. Aitcheson was approached about this, he acknowledged his past and saw the opportunity to tell his story in the hopes that others would see the possibility of conversion and repentance, especially given the context of what occurred in Charlottesville,' the statement says. 

    Information was not released immediately on when the reporter contacted the diocese. 

    Aitcheson wrote in the essay that his involvement with the KKK ended 40 years ago, and he denounced some of his activities with the white supremacist group, including burning crosses. However, he did not publicize details of his time leading the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the KKK, which was active in Prince George's County.

    The priest's public statement did not list many details of his time with the KKK, including that he was charged with several crimes in 1977 after police accused him of burning crosses and building pipe bombs and Molotov Cocktails in his home, News4's Mark Segraves learned from Aitcheson's FBI files.

    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, the victims of a cross-burning after they 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.

    On Tuesday, Barbara Butler said she never got any money. She said she and her husband are retired and could use the money. 

    The diocese just learned about the civil suit over the weekend and said it is working with Aitcheson to make restitution.

    Aitcheson also 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.

    According to a 1977 Washington Post article, Aitcheson was charged with six cross burnings, one count of making bomb threats and two counts of manufacturing pipe bombs.

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    At the time of Aitcheson's arrest, the Washington Post reported that Aitcheson's group planned to bomb homes of African-Americans and the offices of the NAACP in Prince George's County.

    Aitcheson credited religion for helping him move past racism and bigotry.

    “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. It’s hard to believe that was me,” he wrote.

    "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 continued. 

    In his article, Aitcheson wrote that his membership in the Klan is public information but rarely comes up.

    Aitcheson also 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.

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    He was ordained in 1984 in Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, Nevada, and came to Arlington in 1993.

    "At the time he began ministry here in 1993, the diocese learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart," a spokesman for the diocese said in an email. "His conversion is evidenced, in part, by the fact that we have had no accusation of racism while ministering in the Diocese of Arlington."

    His first assignment in the Arlington Diocese was with St. Elizabeth Church in Colonial Beach. He also worked at churches in Fredericksburg, Woodstock, Warrenton, Chantilly and Fairfax City.

    “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,” Bishop Michael F. Burbidge wrote in a statement.

    Aitcheson also announced he would take a temporary leave of absence from parish duties.