A Catholic priest in Arlington, Virginia, has requested a temporary leave of absence from his parish after he revealed that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan more than 40 years ago, before joining the clergy.
In an editorial published Monday in the Arlington Catholic Herald, the Rev. William Aitcheson wrote that “in the course of one’s life, there are seminal moments that humble us and, in some cases, even bring shame.”
A racist past
Aitcheson wrote 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.”
Aitcheson described “burning crosses” and sending “a threatening letter” as a member of the group. WTTG-TV reported that when Aitcheson was a 22-year-old former University of Maryland student, he mailed a letter to Coretta Scott King threatening to kill her if she spoke at the school.
“While 40 years have passed, I must say this: I’m sorry,” he wrote. “To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”
The Klan targeted blacks as well as Jews and Catholics. Aitcheson wrote that he was raised Catholic but he was “in no way practicing my faith” as a member of the group.
“The irony that I left an anti-Catholic hate group to rejoin the Catholic Church is not lost on me,” Aitcheson wrote. “It is a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.”
In the wake of Charlottesville
Aitcheson wrote that a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month “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 wrote. “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.”
Aitcheson called images of the rally “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.
He wrote that “racists have polluted minds, twisted by an ideology that reinforces the false belief that they are superior to others,” but he added that “Christ teaches something different”:
He teaches us that we are all his creations and wonderfully made — no matter our skin color or ethnicity. Realizing this truth is incredibly liberating. When I left my former life, I did a lot of soul-searching. God humbled me, because I needed to be humbled. But abandoning thoughts of racism and superiority gave me the liberation I needed.
Aitcheson continued that he revealed his past because he knows “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,” he wrote.
A message for white supremacists
In a message directly to white supremacists, Aitcheson warned, “you will find no fulfillment in this ideology.”
“Your hate will never be satisfied and your anger will never subside. I encourage you to find peace and mercy in the only place where it is authentic and unending: Jesus Christ,” he wrote.
“I ask that you pray for the victims of racism and bigotry,” he added. “Pray that they would never feel like anything less than children of God, bestowed with dignity and love. Pray also for those who perpetuate racist beliefs and wrongly believe they are superior to others.
“God forgives everyone who truly repents. Nobody is outside of his loving grasp,” he concluded. “With conversion in Christ, they can find new life in the truth.”
A leave of absence
In a statement, Catholic Diocese of Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge said, “While Father 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."
"Our Lord is ready to help them begin a new journey, one where they will find peace, love, and mercy," Burbidge said. "The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God.”
A spokesperson for the Catholic Dioceses of Arlington said in a statement that there have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Aitcheson during his time in the diocese. The spokesperson said Aitcheson’s article was written “with the intention of telling his story of transformation.”
The dioceses said Aitcheson “voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well-being of the Church and parish community,” and they approved his request.