An Arlington, Va., Catholic priest has decided to temporarily step down after revealing that before becoming a member of the clergy, he used to burn crosses as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Rev. William Aitcheson revealed his dark past in an editorial published Monday in the Arlington Catholic Herald, speaking candidly about his wrongs.
“What most people do not know about me is that as an impressionable young man, I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s public information but it rarely comes up,” Aitcheson wrote. “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.”
Aitcheson detailed that he was Catholic even as a youth but was “in no way practicing [his] faith,” and even though his past is now more than 40 years behind him, he is still coming forth to issue a clear apology, citing the memories brought forward by the violence of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
“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. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me,” he wrote.
“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 added. “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. Those mistakes have emboldened me in my journey to follow the God who yearns to give us his grace and redemption.”
According to the Washington Post, Catholic Diocese of Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge issued a statement calling Aitcheson’s past “sad and deeply troubling.” The Post cited its own March 1977 story, in which Aitcheson was identified as a 23-year-old University of Maryland student charged with six cross burnings in Prince George’s County and other counts, including making bomb threats and making pipe bombs.
At the time, state police identified Aitcheson as the leader of the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the KKK.
The person described in that story appears to be a far cry from the priest who blasted the racism witnessed in Charlottesville and across the country.
“The images from Charlottesville are 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. Racists have polluted minds, twisted by an ideology that reinforces the false belief that they are superior to others,” he wrote in his op-ed. “We must condemn, at every opportunity, the hatred and vile beliefs of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations. What they believe directly contradicts what we believe as Americans and what we, as Catholics, hold dear.”
At the end of the op-ed, it is noted that Aitcheson voluntarily asked to step down from his position temporarily, and that his request was approved.