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Remarkable: the former KKK leader who became a Catholic priest

This is making news in the Diocese of Arlington:

A Catholic priest in Arlington, Va., is temporarily stepping down after revealing he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and burned crosses more than 40 years ago before becoming a clergy member.

The Rev. William Aitcheson wrote an editorial that was published Monday in theArlington Catholic Herald describing himself as “an impressionable young man” when he became a member of the hate group. He wrote that images from the deadly white supremacist and white nationalist rally in Charlottesville “brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget.”

…According to the 1977 Post story, state police in Maryland said Aitcheson was a leader of the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the KKK. The lodge had planned to recruit people to blow up facilities at Fort Meade near Laurel.

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.

From the editorial, where he writes about “moving from hate to love with God’s grace”: 

As an impressionable young man, I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s public information but it rarely comes up. 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.

As a young adult I was Catholic, but in no way practicing my faith. The irony that I 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.

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.

If there are any white supremacists reading this, I have a message for you: 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.

I ask that you pray for the victims of racism and bigotry. 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. With conversion in Christ, they can find new life in the truth.

The diocese released a statement in response from Bishop Michael Burbidge:

“While Fr. 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. The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God.”

There have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Fr. Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington.

Fr. William Aitcheson’s article was written with the intention of telling his story of transformation. He voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well-being of the Church and parish community, and the request was approved.

I reached out to the diocesan communications director Billy Atwell and asked him what led to Father Aitcheson’s request to step away from ministry—and what kind of reaction his column had received.

He replied:

Fr. Aitcheson decided that given the current political and cultural climate around the sensitive issue of racism, he felt it best to temporarily step away from his parish duties. He felt it was best for the Church and his parish. His request was approved. His hope is that his story of transformation would be helpful to others.

There has been a good amount positive response to the fact that he was willing to share his story. The comments for the post on our Facebook page is fairly reflective of the overall response we have gotten so far. I have gotten emails from individuals who are not Catholic—and some who outright oppose the Church’s stance on many issues—but want to show appreciation for his message.

To my way of thinking, the story of Father Aitcheson is an extraordinarily courageous and powerful testimony about conversion and grace. And it serves to remind us all of something I mentioned in my homily Sunday: “God isn’t finished with any of us yet.”

Pray for Father Aitcheson — and pray for our country as we journey forward.

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