A Catholic priest admits that he was previously a member of the Ku Klux Klan

A high ranking member of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan stands by a burning cross near Zinc, Ark., the site of the KKK's annual congress, Oct. 12, 1991. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

A Roman Catholic priest in Virginia has been placed on leave after his past as a member of the Ku Klux Klan came to light on Monday. Father William Aitcheson of the Diocese of Arlington, just outside of Washington D.C., was convicted on criminal charges in 1977 after he led a group of Klan members who burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family in College Park, Maryland.

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The incident occurred 40 years ago, on the lawn of Phillip and Barbara Butler, who had just moved in to a mostly white neighborhood, NBC Washington reports. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail after a number of criminal charges, alleging that he threatened to kill Coretta Scott King and burned multiple crosses, arose.

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At the time of the incident, the Washington Post reported that Aitcheson was the “exalted cyclops,” or leader, of the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The priest was then still a college student and when officers searched Aitcheson’s home, they found “nine pounds of black powder and several bomb components.”

Aitcheson discussed his past in an op-ed piece published in the Arlington Catholic Herald. He wrote, “the images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget,” and continued, “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.”

A spokesperson for the diocese told NBC Washington “At the time he began ministry here in 1993, the diocese learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart. His conversion is evidenced, in part, by the fact that we have had no accusation of racism while ministering in the Diocese of Arlington.”

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