A Roman Catholic priest in Virginia came out as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan on Monday and has since requested a leave of absence from the church.
Father William Aitcheson disclosed his past in the KKK in the diocese’s newspaper, saying his actions were “despicable.” He was actually convicted on criminal charges in the 1970s after being involved in multiple cross-burnings and threatening to kill Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow.
“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… 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.”
Aitcheson admitted that he was Catholic during his time in the KKK, but added that he was “in no way practicing” his 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.”
He said the images from Charlottesville, where violent white supremacists clashed with protestors in a deadly day-long event, “brought back memories” and encouraged him to be open about his past. He doesn’t want us to repeat the mistakes he made years ago.
“The images from Charlottesville are 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. Racists have polluted minds, twisted by an ideology that reinforces the false belief that they are superior to others.”
After Aitcheson wrote the column, the diocese said he “voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well being of the Church and parish community.”
Fortunately for us, Aitcheson has renounced his formerly racist and violent ways. In fact, he is trying to leverage these past experiences as a means to help others change. His church already knew about his past and accepted his misgivings before he came to them in the 1990s, but the topic has remained largely taboo (and therefore hasn’t been used as a learning experience). His past shouldn’t be ignored but neither should we dismiss a sincere attempt at atonement.
I hope his openness does help people give up their racist ideologies and see that people can change with time and lots of hard work.