Forty years ago, William Aitcheson was a University of Maryland student and Ku Klux Klan member who burned a cross in the front yard of a black newlywed couple’s home. He was sentenced to jail time and ordered to pay about $20,000 to the family. Then God changed his heart.
Seeing images from the deadly white supremacist and white nationalist rally in Charlottesville spurred Aitcheson to make a confession of his own. He wrote an essay published Monday in the Arlington Catholic Herald about his KKK involvement and burning crosses before joining the clergy. He said he’s temporarily stepping down from his post.
In his essay, Aitcheson described himself as “an impressionable young man” when he joined the hate group. He wrote that images from the rally in Charlottesville “brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget.”
It isn’t clear how many at his current or past parishes knew of his KKK involvement, although officials at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington said that when he came to the diocese more than 24 years ago, they “learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart.” They said no accusations of racism have been lodged against him while at the diocese.
“My actions were despicable,” wrote Aitcheson, 62. “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.”
In a statement, Michael F. Burbidge, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, called Aitcheson’s past “sad and deeply troubling.”
Aitcheson served with the Catholic Church in Nevada before being transferred to Arlington, where he is originally from, church officials said in a statement. He was ordained in 1988 and has served in a variety of positions at parishes in Nevada; Arlington; Fredericksburg; and Warrenton, Va. His latest assignment was as parochial vicar, or assistant to the pastor, at St. Leo the Great in Fairfax City.
The Arlington diocese said Aitcheson would not be available to comment. Attempts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful.
According to a March 1977 story in The Washington Post, Aitcheson, then a 23-year-old University of Maryland student, was identified as an “exalted cyclops” of a KKK lodge. He was charged in several cross-burnings in Prince George’s County, one count of making bomb threats and two counts of manufacturing pipe bombs.
According to the 1977 Post article, Maryland State Police said Aitcheson was a leader of the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the KKK, which had planned to recruit people to blow up facilities at Fort Meade.
When officers searched his home in the 1970s, they found nine pounds of black powder, weapons and bomb parts in Aitcheson’s bedroom and basement. His parents told authorities they didn’t know about the explosives and weapons.
At the time he was charged in the 1970s, Aitcheson’s father, William W. Aitcheson, said his son was a member of the hate group, adding, “My son, along with others, are just caught up in it. . . . I don’t know what their thoughts are.”
Aitcheson pleaded guilty to several cross burnings, including one in the front yard of an African American family in the College Park Woods neighborhood and others at B’nai B’rith Hillel at the University of Maryland and the Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville. He was convicted, sentenced to 90 days and ordered to pay a judgment of about $20,000.
The African American couple declined to talk Tuesday about the burning cross from 40 years ago. A woman who answered the door at their Silver Spring home said it was so long ago and that thinking about it would bring back difficult memories.
Five years after Aitcheson’s involvement in the cross-burning incident at their home, President Ronald Reagan visited the couple and their young daughter, saying it was “is not something that should have happened in America,” according to a May 1982 article in the Post.
Steve Fennell, a partner at Washington law firm Steptoe and Johnson, represented the family in a civil case against Aitcheson. He said the cross burning had an “enormous impact” on his former clients, although he hasn’t spoken with them in decades.
“The hurt was profound, but the closure they got from the president of the United States was just as profound,” he said.
Aitcheson also pleaded guilty to charges that he threatened to kill Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. He told a U.S. District Court judge that he wrote to King in February 1976, telling her to “stay off the University of Maryland campus or you will die.” Investigators said he wrote “Africa or death by lynching, take your pick, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” He was a U-Md. student studying broadcasting at the time.
He told a judge he was pleading guilty because “well, ah, because I’m guilty.” He was convicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore of mailing threatening communications. A judge sentenced him to 60 days in prison and four years of probation.
In his essay published this week, Aitcheson apologized and said the recent violence in Charlottesville prompted him to share his past. He called the images from Charlottesville “embarrassing,” adding that “for those who have repented from a damaging and destructive past, the images should bring us to our knees in prayer.”
Aitcheson went on: “Racists have polluted minds, twisted by an ideology that reinforces the false belief that they are superior to others.” Aitcheson also wrote that “the irony that” he “left an anti-Catholic hate group to rejoin the Catholic Church is not lost on me. It is a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.”
The diocese had received information about Aitcheson’s history when he was officially accepted for ministry in 1998, officials said. Billy Atwell, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, did not detail that information.
Atwell said Aitcheson’s background check upon coming to Arlington indicated he hadn’t been convicted of a “barrier crime” under Virginia law, which includes crimes such as murder, robbery, sexual assault or crimes against children.
He said more in-depth background reviews have been done routinely on staff and priests since the mid-2000s. The checks are conducted using a national criminal check system of FBI and fingerprint-tracking databases.
Former and current church officials familiar with the screening process said judgments of priest-candidates are considered on a “case by case basis” and that there is no national or churchwide standard. Sexual abuse or sexual crime, however, would eliminate a candidate’s chances.
Atwell said Tuesday that Aitcheson’s “story of repentance is authentic.”
The checks are conducted using a national criminal check system of FBI and fingerprint-tracking databases.
“The question as to whether someone is fit for ministry is answered within that process,” Atwell wrote in an email. After that, he said, a formal recommendation is made to the Bishop and his advisers. Aitcheson did undergo other routine procedures, such as a psychological evaluation and multiple interviews.
In Nevada, a spokesman for the Diocese of Reno said he only had “general files” about Aitcheson and that those who had made decisions on him becoming a priest have since died.
“The diocese accepted him, for whatever reason,” said the Rev. Robert Chorey. “I have no record of their thought process of anything.”
Asked if the diocese knew about Aitcheson’s KKK and criminal background when they accepted him as a priest, Chorey said, “it seems they understood at least part of his background.” What would disqualify someone from becoming a priest was hard to say, Chorey said, adding that it would be decided on a case-by-case basis. He said he didn’t know why Aitcheson decided to go to Nevada.
At Fairfax’s Saint Leo the Great, Al Leightley, the church’s head usher, said Aitcheson never discussed his involvement with the KKK. Leightley found out about his past Tuesday morning but said Aitcheson repented appropriately in his letter.
“He is a very good priest, very dedicated to his profession,” he said. “It’s hard to see all the commotion going on with the gentleman.”
Some public Catholic figures began speaking out on Aitcheson on Tuesday, including conservative legal scholar Matthew Franck, a Princeton University lecturer.
“I hope this evidently good man returns to active ministry,” Franck tweeted. “He could do important work, especially with his history.”
On the diocese’s Facebook page, supporters of the priest praised his decision to go public and called him a gifted pastor. “A true story of redemption. May God continue to work in and through Fr. Aitcheson,” one wrote.
In a phone interview, Franck said, “Sometimes people get involved in a hate group and then have been reborn, and have an interesting story to tell. … It would be a loss for him to just vanish.”
Some commenters disagreed. One woman, Linda Sun, wrote on the comment section of the Arlington Catholic Herald website that while Aitcheson may “feel good” after putting his story more into the public, it’s a “kind of self-indulgence that does little good.”
A note at the bottom of Aitcheson’s essay Monday said he had “voluntarily asked to step away from public ministry, for the well being of the Church and parish community.”
Ellie Silverman, Justin Jouvenal, Magda Jean-Louis and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.