Doug Duncan experienced a shock when he first ran into his old classmate Bill Aitcheson at a reunion of their Catholic high school in the District years ago.
Aitcheson had been an exceptionally angry young man in high school in the early 1970s — downright hateful, recalled Duncan, a former Montgomery county executive. “He was a very bad guy — a skinhead, a racist. You stayed away from him.”
And yet he had returned to the button-down campus of St. John’s College High School as a priest — the very last person his classmates imagined would have become one. The fair-skinned, bespectacled Aitcheson’s demeanor had changed dramatically, too, as he related affably with his classmates, Duncan recalled. At another reunion, Aitcheson even celebrated Mass for his classmates in the chapel.
“He had a conversion, that’s the only way I can say it,” Duncan said. “Something happened to him and he just gave up everything he was before.”
In an essay published last Monday, the 62-year-old priest at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax City addressed this apparent transformation, revealing his college days in the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1970s and proclaiming himself saved by his faith.
“Racists have polluted minds,” Aitcheson wrote in the Arlington Catholic Herald. He referenced the recent deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and opined that for former racists who have repented as he did, “the images should bring us to our knees.” Aitcheson temporarily stepped down, the Arlington Diocese said, at his own request.
Aitcheson’s account of his racist past and conversion at first seemed like a straightforward tale of good overcoming evil. But as more details emerged, the story grew more complicated.
It turned out that he wasn’t just “a member” of the KKK, as his essay said, but a violent ringleader in Maryland who served time after burning crosses, threatening to kill Coretta Scott King and plotting to take down water systems, military installations and launch an armed revolution for which he’d stockpiled bombs and guns, according to authorities and published accounts. And while he wrote Monday that God had forgiven him, the African American family and Jewish groups he had terrorized said he never apologized to them directly nor paid them the $26,000 in damages a court had ordered decades ago.
The reason behind Aitcheson’s revelation also has been called into question. Maria Santos Bier, a freelance journalist and member of the Arlington Diocese, had contacted the diocese a few days before Aitcheson wrote the essay to ask about Aitcheson’s KKK history — and told them she might write about it.
In an essay published in The Washington Post, Santos Bier described her experience as a history student of Aitcheson’s while she was home-schooled in the early 2000s in Woodstock, Va. Aitcheson was a “fervent advocate of the Confederacy” who would joke about “Saint Robert E. Lee” in homilies at the church, and seemed so knowledgeable about history, Santos Bier wrote, that “I trusted him when he taught us that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights, not slavery; that the South’s cause was noble and just.”
[The Catholic Church’s last major effort on racism was in 1979. Charlottesville woke it up.]
Through all the revelations, Aitcheson has been publicly silent, declining daily interview requests through the diocese. Efforts to find him were unsuccessful. Church officials in Arlington and Reno — the two dioceses where he has worked since his ordination in 1988 — declined to speak at any length about him. Priests and lay leaders in the eight parishes and many congregants where Aitcheson has worked also declined to speak about him.
William M. Aitcheson grew up in Howard and Prince George’s counties, one of four sons in a prominent, devoutly Catholic family before enrolling at the University of Maryland, where he studied television and film. He was still a student there at 22 when he was arrested as the “exalted cyclops” — or leader — of a Klan group in 1977. Police searching Aitcheson’s belongings found a publication titled “How to Kill,” along with a cache of weaponry and extensive survival gear.
By that point, Aitcheson had been deemed “too radical and violent” for the main KKK branch, which threw him out, according to FBI files. An undercover agent testified that the Aitcheson-led group, the “Klan Beret,” was readying to blow up a power plant and communications center at Fort Meade, Md., the local branch of the NAACP and private homes. Aitcheson was arrested after he gave the undercover agent a fully-built bomb intended for the NAACP, according to the FBI.
The group had burned six crosses in Prince George’s, including at two Jewish institutions and on the front lawn of a black couple, Barbara and Phillip Butler, newlyweds who had just moved into what was then a mostly white neighborhood in College Park.
In July 1977, Aitcheson was sentenced to 90 days in a federal medical prison with four years probation by a judge who told him, “I don’t believe you are a bad person.”
[This is the church where Robert E. Lee declared himself a sinner. Should it keep his name?]
After serving his time, Aitcheson kept a low profile. He relocated to the church-run King’s College in Pennsylvania and graduated in 1979 with a degree in politics and government before teaching elementary and high schools in Missouri for two years, according to a 2013 bio by the diocese. An attorney for the Butlers at that time said it took two years after the couple filed their civil suit against Aitcheson in 1978 to find him. The suit was resolved in 1982 with $23,000 in damages awarded to the Butlers and the rest to his Jewish victims.
“I don’t see what purpose it would serve to rehash this business all over again,” Aitcheson’s father, William W. Aitcheson, a lumber company executive who is now deceased, told a columnist for the Baltimore Sun that year. “There are so many other groups that are just as bad, if you want to call it that. . . . Billy just wants to forget about it all now.”
The young Aitcheson soon made the dramatic decision to become a priest. He attended the Pontifical North American College in Rome and received a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the diocese bio reads. Officials at King’s College, the seminary and St. Thomas declined to comment. Aitcheson’s mother, Ann D. Aitcheson, declined to comment. Numerous attempts to reach other relatives by phone were unsuccessful.
Aitcheson was ordained for what was then the diocese of Reno-Las Vegas in 1988 at age 33. In brief comments early this week, Reno diocesan spokesman, the Rev. Robert Chorey, said church leaders “understood at least part of his background” when they hired Aitcheson. “. . . I have no record of their thought process.”
In 1992, Aitcheson was arrested on charges of trespassing on the property of the West End Women’s Medical Group clinic in Reno. On Friday, Damon Stutes, the doctor who still runs the clinic, recalled the priest as a regular protester, who “yelled at” people coming in and acted “like a caged lion that was just holding himself back,” Stutes told The Post.
Aitcheson was convicted of trespass, fined $155 and ordered to remain at least 100 feet from the clinic. Later that year, he was transferred to the Arlington Diocese, one of the most traditional in the country.
The diocese declined to offer any details about what then-
Bishop John Keating knew or asked about Aitcheson. “At the time he began ministry here in 1993, the Diocese learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart,” the diocese said in a statement.
[Priest who penned essay about his KKK past came forward after journalist’s inquiry]
In Northern Virginia, Aitcheson began a tour of at least six parishes. In interviews and in comments left last week on the Facebook pages of the Arlington Diocese and its Arlington Catholic Herald newspaper, Aitcheson was described by some as stern and bookish, while others viewed him as deeply empathetic in the confessional and a capable preacher.
Aitcheson was highly outspoken in favor of the death penalty, and preached and taught often about wars, including the Civil War, some parishioners recalled.
He referred to the latter as “the war of Northern aggression or “the war against the states,” said Chris Peer, 31, who was an altar boy under Aitcheson at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Woodstock. The priest never talked explicitly about race, Peer said.
Aitcheson was a history buff in a region passionate about its history, displaying Civil War memorabilia he’d collected “since his youth” at St. John Bosco rectory, the parish said on its website.
The priest participated in a Memorial Day ceremony reenacting Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s final days and the Battle of Chancellorsville, a decisive victory for the Confederates, according to a 2004 story in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Aitcheson, who had worked in a Fredericksburg parish a few years earlier, offered a prayer. “Then Aitcheson turned to the crowd,” the newspaper reported, “and said ‘Let’s sing the old national anthem.’ He raised his voice, and soon, everyone joined in,” singing Dixie.
In 2005, Aitcheson took a medical leave, moving between parishes upon his return. In June 2014, he came to St. Leo the Great in Fairfax City.
[The day Reagan comforted a black family who had a cross burned on their lawn]
Last week, some parishioners were struggling to reconcile the priest they knew with his violent past and failure over decades to make amends to his victims, actions the diocese has now offered to broker and says Aitcheson is willing to do.
St. Leo parishioner Mark Krajewski at first praised Aitcheson as a “deep scriptural thinker” and said he felt unconflicted. But as he learned more about his priest’s KKK past, and his lack of apology and payment to his victims, Krajewski grew more ambivalent.
“I try to think good things about our priests and it’s difficult to learn of this information and think good things. . . . This will always be in my mind,” he said.
Others greeted Aitcheson’s account of conversion with empathy and praise for the priest and the diocese for coming out with a healing story during a time of racial division.
“I’d have no problem going to confession or getting spiritual direction from this guy — in fact, maybe more now,” said Ryan Ellis, 39, a parishioner at St. Rita Catholic Church in Alexandria. “This guy has seen hell and the other side.”
Magda Jean-Louis and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.