The Rev. William M. Aitcheson was my childhood priest and my history teacher. A fervent advocate of the Confederacy, he used to joke about “Saint Robert E. Lee” in his homilies at church. When I was in middle school in the early 2000s, he taught a Civil War history class for the home-school group at my church in the small Shenandoah County town of Woodstock, Va.
He was also a former Ku Klux Klan member, who in 1982 was fined $26,000 for burning crosses in the yard of an African American family and on the grounds of two Jewish establishments — a fine he had never paid. Before that, he was charged with six cross-burnings in Maryland and with sending a threatening letter to Coretta Scott King. He had also been charged with making pipe bombs and was found with various weapons and bombmaking materials in his bedroom and basement. But I didn’t uncover those latter facts until this month, when I stumbled onto a discovery that would eventually prompt Aitcheson to step down temporarily from his public ministry. He wrote in an op-ed that his service to God had changed and redeemed him. But I knew he wasn’t being entirely honest.
I remember him as an imposing figure who took his history lessons to us home-schoolers very seriously. He had a reputation for being a bit gruff, but he was never unkind to me, and I recall him fondly. He knew so much about history, and 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.
It would be many years before I would begin to question my ideas about the South. Aitcheson’s views on the Confederacy were certainly not outside the norm: Many people I know and love sincerely believe that Southerners never stood for slavery and that the North waged an unjust war on them. But slowly, as an adult, I shed my Confederate sympathies, and I would only occasionally think of Aitcheson and what he taught me.
After the now-infamous white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, ostensibly over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, I spent quite some time thinking about what it meant to grow up in a region where tearing down monuments felt like tearing down a whole culture’s founding mythology. Neither of my parents is originally from the area, but even as transplants, we learned to share a sense of local pride in the architecture, the stories, the music. Even if I disagree, I understand why some people want to keep the monuments; this is their architecture, their stories, their home. I thought about Aitcheson and wondered what had ever happened to him. On Friday, Aug. 18, I Googled his name. The first result was about his many years of service as a priest — he was now at St. Leo the Great in Fairfax City, Va. The second was a 1977 Washington Post article about William M. Aitcheson, a 23-year-old University of Maryland student and “exalted cyclops” of his local Klan group, the Robert E. Lee klavern.
This Aitcheson, according to coverage at the time, had joined a paramilitary splinter group called the “Klan Beret.” A Maryland State Police officer who had infiltrated the group testified that, with Aitcheson as an enthusiastic member, the Klan Beret aimed to use bombs and other violent tactics in its coming “revolution” against Jews, blacks and other minorities. The story of Aitcheson’s arrest for cross-burning and threats gained national attention, and another Klan leader complained that Aitcheson’s antics had “set the Klan back 50 years.”
At first, I thought it might be an odd coincidence. But a picture of a young William Aitcheson, Klan member, looked just like the William Aitcheson I remembered. My Aitcheson and the Klansman had the same name, were the same age and bore matching biographical details. If they were the same man, he had spent a few years teaching and entered the seminary in Rome in 1984. He was ordained in 1988 in Las Vegas.
Overcome by curiosity, I had to know if this was the same person — and if the church knew. I emailed the spokeswoman for the Arlington, Va., bishop’s office to ask. I wrote that I was a former parishioner. Although I am also an occasional freelance journalist, I wasn’t digging for a story at that point. I was looking for answers from my bishop — I am a Catholic parishioner in the Arlington diocese, at St. Mary’s in Alexandria.
I continued to pore over the details of Aitcheson’s case throughout the weekend: In 1982, a federal judge ordered him to pay $23,000 to Phillip and Barbara Butler, and $1,500 apiece to two Jewish groups, for burning crosses on their property in what the judge called “a personal campaign of terror.” The Butlers had been the fifth black family to move into the Maryland subdivision of College Park Woods, a predominantly white neighborhood at the time, when Aitcheson — who lived in a different Maryland county — erected a burning cross on their lawn. President Ronald Reagan read about the case in The Post and was so moved by the Butlers’ story that he went to visit them personally.
The Saturday morning after I sent my email, an official from the diocese emailed me back to say they would look into it; he asked if I was a journalist. By now, I realized that there was no question of Aitcheson being a different person and that I had clumsily stumbled into a real story. Yes, I said: I was a reporter in addition to being a former parishioner.
But I didn’t only want to know, as a Catholic, whether the church had known. I also wondered what Aitcheson thought now — about the Confederacy, the Klan, the cross he burned on the Butlers’ lawn. Clearly he had chosen a different path after his conviction. I wanted to hear about his search for redemption. Had he also apologized to the Butlers? So that Saturday, I went to the 5 p.m. service at his Fairfax City parish, where he was scheduled to celebrate Mass. As the minutes ticked past 5 and the ushers began to whisper, Aitcheson was nowhere to be found. Another priest came in to say the Mass, apologizing for a last-minute “emergency.” I called the bishop’s office to say that at this point, although I had not begun this inquiry looking for a story, I’d be writing one.
I called Phillip Butler, of the 1982 lawsuit against Aitcheson, and asked him if he had ever received any money or an apology. The answer was no — the family had never seen or heard from Aitcheson again. I explained how I had come upon the story. Butler, who is Catholic himself, was surprised to hear that Aitcheson had become a priest. Why hadn’t Butler pressed to receive the money? He told me he recalled that Aitcheson’s father had been something of a bigwig in Howard County and they didn’t imagine they would have much luck pressing it. They were satisfied with Reagan’s visit, which he said they “still cherish.” At the time, that was closure enough for them. (The University of Maryland Hillel, the first of the Jewish groups in the settlement, also told me that its rabbi at the time, Bob Saks, could not recall ever receiving a payment. Rabbi Mendel Abrams of the Beth Torah Congregation, the second group, said he had not received a payment or heard from the diocese as of Thursday.)
If that was enough for the Butlers, maybe it should have been enough for me, too. But I also wondered how a priest, a public representative of the church, could take such a position of influence without even privately apologizing for his sins to those he had harmed. Perhaps he couldn’t afford $23,000 at the time of his ordination, but I can’t believe he could never spare a phone call or a letter to ask forgiveness. As a Catholic, I was brought up to believe in God’s mercy — but my faith also teaches the necessity of penance, atonement, justice and paying your dues.
On Monday afternoon, the bishop’s office released the op-ed from Aitcheson, addressing (rather vaguely) his past, along with an announcement that he had requested to step down for now. Neither the editorial nor the accompanying news release addressed whether the church previously knew about his past or, if so, why church leaders had not asked him to apologize to the Butler family or pay his debt. The Arlington bishop’s office portrayed his disclosure, titled “Moving from hate to love with God’s grace,” as a spontaneous act, connected only to his private reflections on Charlottesville. “Our actions have consequences,” he wrote. So why hadn’t he faced them?
The Diocese of Reno, where Aitcheson was made a priest in 1988, informed me via email that while Aitcheson had “admitted” to officials there his involvement in the KKK, he had never made the church aware of the 1982 lawsuit and his debt. I wondered how such a large omission could really be considered “admitting” his past involvement. The Arlington diocese eventually released a similar statement about what it had known.
On Wednesday, the Butler family gave a news conference. Their attorney said that, while the diocese had now offered to set up a meeting for Aitcheson to apologize to the Butlers, they were unsure about how to proceed. They want him to finally reveal the names of the other Klan members who helped victimize them and who were never brought to justice. After the news conference, the Arlington diocese released another statement, saying that “a freelancer reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner,” had contacted officials about Aitcheson’s past, prompting the disclosure.
I felt — and still feel — confused and conflicted about my role in this. A few nights into my investigation, I discovered yet another ugly surprise about someone from my past: An old acquaintance had marched in the white nationalist tiki torch parade at the University of Virginia, side by side with the young men shouting Nazi slogans.
I thought back to an evening several years ago, spent with this person and some mutual friends. After a few too many glasses of wine, he and another friend began to sing the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy — “Dixie.” I sang along, mangling the words a bit, but as a Virginian, it was a song I’d heard many times before.
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land!
It was the second time I had thought about that familiar old song in recent days, and this time it made my stomach churn. As I had searched through every article I could find naming William Aitcheson, I came upon a 2004 article in Fredericksburg, Va.’s Free Lance-Star. Aitcheson was still my pastor then. He had presided over a memorial service for the Confederate dead, where he read “The Conquered Banner,” a popular post-Civil War poem composed by a Catholic priest who had been a chaplain for the Confederate army. Then, the Lance-Star reported, Aitcheson turned to the crowd and said, “Let’s sing the old national anthem.” He led them all in song.
I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie land I’ll take my stand,
to live and die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!