From Ku Klux Klan Terrorist to Catholic Priest

Blessed be the bomb makers

A package of several stories detailing Catholic priest William Aitcheson’s past as a domestic terrorist will be published this week in the National Catholic Reporter. Below is a preview:
By Nate Thayer

After Ku Klux Klan leader Bill Aitcheson was convicted on hate crime and bomb making charges in 1977, he vanished for 40 years.

 

But Aitcheson had disappeared in plain sight, ushered into the priesthood in the Catholic church.

 

This August, he reluctantly re-emerged as Fr. William Aitcheson when his Ku Klux Klan past and his Catholic priest present was abruptly revealed to the harsh glare of public scrutiny.

A Reno Nevada police mug shot of Father William Aitcheson after his 1992 arrest at a medical clinic that provided abortion services

How had he become a priest in the Catholic diocese of Arlington, Virginia a few miles from where he had terrorized as a Klansman? And how had that secret kept for so long?

 

Court documents thought to have been destroyed for decades and more than 100 interviews with KKK leaders, Catholic church officials, law enforcement and others show that immediately after his criminal convictions, Aitcheson was ushered through a series of church institutions on the path towards priesthood with many of his church benefactors aware of his résumé as a violent leader of a notorious racist hate group.

 

Priests and Catholic Bishops in at least three dioceses knew of Aitcheson’s life as a violent racist, and shielded his whereabouts and KKK past from his Klan victims, parishioners and U.S. courts who spent years trying to serve him legal actions for his hate crimes.
 
Immediately after being convicted in 1977 by Maryland and federal courts for felony and misdemeanor racial crimes, Aitcheson skipped town and was ushered through various church institutions and dioceses’ that knew he was a convicted terrorist.
 
In the following years, Aitcheson hid from U.S. federal courts attempting to serve subpoenas and enforce court judgments as he entered the priesthood. During this period, Aitcheson studied at a Catholic order run college, was accepted into the seminary and ordained by the Reno-Las Vegas diocese, was sponsored by a Catholic Bishop to attend a prestigious Rome-based Vatican run college, and then transferred to the Arlington, Virginia diocese where he served as a pastor in churches until August—all of whom were aware of his criminal convictions for KKK hate crimes, court documents, church statements, and interviews show.
With the assistance of some priests, diocese, and church institutions, Aitcheson fought hard to have his whereabouts kept secret.

FBI document showing 25 of Fr. William Aitcheson’s fingerprints on a 1976 death threat letter he was convicted of sending to Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr

 
Some church institutions, including the respected Pontifical North American College in Rome where Aitcheson studied from 1984 until 1988, were apparently mislead and information of Aitcheson’s white supremacism was withheld by his sponsoring diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, according to then officials of the college.
 
Meanwhile, the victims of Aitcheson’s 1976 and 1977 hate crimes that brought civil charges against him in the early 1980s and were awarded judgments by a federal court had “not known of Aitcheson’s whereabouts for the last five years,” and there “has not been a need demonstrated to know Aitcheson’s address over the next five years,” Aitcheson’s lawyer wrote to a federal judge April 1, 1982,
 
Aitcheson was objecting to a court order requiring him to provide his current and future whereabouts and employment.
 
During that 10 year span from 1978 through 1988 while Aitcheson was avoiding court subpoenas and refused to pay court ordered judgments to his victims, Aitcheson was fast tracked through church dioceses’ to ordination as a priest.
 
During the forty years between Aitcheson’s criminal convictions for manufacturing bombs, sending death threats, and burning crosses on the properties of black families and Jewish religious institutions as a member of the Klan in 1976 and 1977 until he briefly emerged for one day last August acknowledging only some of his Klan history, his past as a violent racist was known by numerous church officials but his whereabouts were not by U.S. federal courts, the victims of his crimes, lawyers, and the United States Marshal Service.
 
The investigation of the church’s role abetting Aitcheson, a stark tale even in an era of highly publicized church cover-ups of clergy scandals, raises anew questions about clerical accountability to the wider church, about the processes for vetting aspiring seminarians, and whether the clerical culture views itself as above the reach of the law.
 
In 1977, Aitcheson was charged separately in three Maryland counties and the federal U.S. district court of Maryland on seven counts of burning crosses on the properties of black families and Jewish religious institutions, manufacturing, possessing, and distributing illegal explosives, and threatening to kill Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment, all but 30 days suspended, and three years supervised probation by the state of Maryland. A federal court sentenced him to four years federal supervised probation and 60 days in a federal prison hospital for psychiatric evaluation which he began serving Sept. 7, 1977.
 
Within weeks of being released from the federal prison hospital in November 1977, Aitcheson entered King’s College in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania on January 20, 1978, a Catholic institution run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the same order that runs the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He was still on supervised federal and Maryland probation, according to court documents obtained by NCR.
 
In June 1978, five months after Aitcheson entered King’s College, a U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C. initiated another civil court case against Aitcheson brought by three of his Ku Klux Klan victims, but Aitcheson had skipped town and, over the following four decades until this August, neither the court or his Klan victims knew where he lived or what he was doing.
 
During a four-year period from 1978 through 1982, a U.S. federal court subpoenaed Aitcheson repeatedly at his King’s College and home addresses, but Aitcheson refused to appear until a federal judge threatened him with contempt of court in late 1980. During that one appearance Aitcheson refused to answer questions or disclose where he was living.
 
Aitcheson was sent at least 12 federal subpoenas ordering him to appear in court, some served by U.S. Marshalls directly to priests, and 11 of them were ignored.
 
Civil judgments imposed by a federal court in 1981 awarding his victims damages for Aitcheson’s hate crimes have also been ignored, numerous court documents obtained by NCR show, and court ordered payments to a black family and two Jewish Rabbis Aitcheson on whose properties Aitcheson was convicted of burning crosses have never been paid.
 
A September 5, 1978, letter to the court from Aitcheson’s attorney said of requests to divulge Aitcheson’s “current address, I am not currently at liberty to divulge this confidential attorney-client information.”
 
“The court file in this case indicates that the defendant has not yet responded,” wrote federal judge Frank A. Kaufman in an October 12, 1978 letter to the attorney’s representing Aitcheson’s hate crime victims.

An official photograph of Fr. William Aitcheson distributed by the Catholic diocese of Arlington, Virginia where he has served as a priest for the past 24 years

“Aitcheson has been elusive, has refused to accept mail and has otherwise apparently tried to avoid service,” reads another document to a federal court in November 1978 while Aitcheson was a student at the Holy Cross Order run King’s College in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
 
The following month, on the instruction of Fr. Albert D’Alonzo, dean of students at King’s College, agents from the U.S. Federal Marshal Service went to the priest’s office and served Aitcheson a court subpoena, according to U.S. Marshal Service documents obtained by NCR.
 
On at least three occasions in 1978 and 1979, agents of the U.S. Federal Marshals Service personally served Aitcheson court ordered legal subpoenas in the office of Father Al D’Alonzo.
 
Aitcheson was “served at Father D’Alonzo, Dean of Students, located at the Administration office, 3rd floor, River street” in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, according to a U.S. Marshals Service document dated January 19, 1979 obtained by NCR.
 
But Aitcheson did not show up for that court ordered appearance either, and dodged a series of other subpoenas sent to him in the years following while he was studying at King’s College and later working for other church institutions preparing for the priesthood.
 
Aitcheson’s “whereabouts were unknown” still in 1980, according to another federal court document.
 
In September, 1980, Federal court Judge Frank Kaufman, who presided over both Aitcheson’s criminal and civil trials, threatened to hold Aitcheson in contempt of court if he didn’t appear, and he relented. But when he appeared in Washington, D.C. to give a deposition under oath at that time, he refused to answer any questions arguing his right to not self incriminate.
 
In the September 29, 1980 deposition the attorney for a black family on whose front lawn Aitcheson had burned a cross in January 1977 asked Aitcheson “Where do you live now?” He responded “I respectfully refuse to answer that question because the answer may tend to incriminate me.”

 

Aitcheson told the judge that as of June 1979 “I had completed my obligations to society for my offenses” and complained that his criminal convictions were hindering him finding work. “After graduation, I tried to start my working life by applying as a religious volunteer. My qualifications and personal recommendations were satisfactory but my conviction prevented me from being hired. For a while I worked as a shoe salesman.”

Then Bill Aitcheson emerging from federal court in 1977 where he plead guilty to sending death threats to the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr

“I have been tried and convicted and punished for my crimes,” Aitcheson wrote judge Kaufman. “I am now trying to establish myself as a productive member of society … and earn a living for myself.”

 

“I own nothing … no real estate, no automobile, just a few dollars of savings to see me through my volunteer work hoping that my performance will earn me a job on the regular payroll.”

 

Aitcheson’s ‘volunteer work’ was teaching in a diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph run school and the ‘job on the regular payroll’ he sought was a priest for the Catholic Church.

….(A package of several stories detailing Catholic priest William Aitcheson’s past as a domestic terrorist will be published this week in the National Catholic Reporter)

 

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