Virginia Catholic Priest Steps Down From Ministry After Revealing KKK Past

Image: The Rev. William Aitcheson
The Rev. William Aitcheson, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. Aitcheson is taking a leave of absence after disclosing he once was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Aitcheson wrote about his past Klan affiliation Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, in The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese's newspaper.Catholic Diocese of Arlington / via AP

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By Daniella Silva

A Roman Catholic priest holding in decades of guilt has temporarily stepped away from his ministerial duties in Virginia after revealing that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan years ago.

Father William Aitcheson said his decision was inspired by the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that left one woman dead and 19 people injured.

“My actions were despicable,” Aitcheson wrote in an editorial published Monday in the The Arlington Catholic Herald.

"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. "It’s hard to believe that was me."

Aitcheson, 62, went on to say that "the images in Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period" in his life, memories he said he would prefer to forget.

“The reality is, we cannot forget, we should not forget,” he wrote.

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington said in a statement that Aitcheson "left that life behind him 40 years ago and since journeyed in faith to eventually become a Catholic priest."

The Rev. William Aitcheson, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. Catholic Diocese of Arlington / via AP

But Aitcheson volunteered to step away temporarily from the public ministry, "for the well-being of the church and parish community,” the diocese said. He had been serving as a parochial vicar at a church in 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 said in the diocese's statement.

Related: Charlottesville City Council Meeting Erupts Over White Nationalist Rally

There have been no accusations of “racism or bigotry” during Aitcheson’s service in Arlington, the diocese added.

The statement did not indicate how long Aitcheson would be stepping away and said he would not be available for interviews. Attempts to reach him by phone were not successful as of Tuesday afternoon.

According to a March 2, 1977 article in the Associated Press, a then 23-year-old Aitcheson was charged with cross burnings, manufacturing pipe bombs and making bomb threats as part of a Maryland KKK plot to damage private, government and military facilities.

President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy leave the home of Phillip and Barbara Butler on May 3, 1982 in Maryland. The visit was prompted by news report of trouble the Butlers were experiencing in their court case as a result of a cross being burned on their lawn in 1977. William Aitcheson was convicted of a criminal misdemeanor in connection with the incident. Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

The Maryland State Police spokesman at the time told the AP Aitcheson was a leader in the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the KKK.

And according to an archive 1977 article in the Washington Post, Aitcheson pleaded guilty in May of that year to charges that he threatened to kill Coretta Scott King, widow of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., in a letter in 1976.

Aitcheson mentions both cross burning and a threatening letter in his editorial.

The priest apologized for his behavior, writing, “I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”

He said the images coming out of the Charlottesville rallies were “embarrassing.”

“They embarrass us as a country, but for those who have repented from a damaging and destructive past, the images should bring us to our knees in prayer,” he wrote.

The diocese added that Aitcheson’s editorial was written with the intent of spreading his story of transformation.

"The irony that I left an anti-Catholic hate group to rejoin the Catholic Church is not lost on me," Aithcheson wrote in his editorial. "It is a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy."

“If there are any white supremacists reading this, I have a message for you: you will find no fulfillment in this ideology,” he added.