Convicted Ku Klux Klan domestic terrorist and now Catholic priest continues his political activism. Church says “plans for his future priestly ministry are still being discerned.”
(This is the third story in a four-story package on the Catholic church cover up giving sanctuary to a now priest convicted for racial hate crimes as a bomb maker for the Ku Klux Klan. No republication or quotation, in whole or in part, is permitted without the express written permission of the author)
Part III: The Activist Priest
By Nate Thayer
December 13, 2017
In August, the Catholic church and priest Fr. William Aitcheson publicly acknowledged his Ku Klux Klan past following the turmoil of violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Aitcheson and the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia tried to craft a public relations portrait of a low profile pastor who had experienced a conversion after his youthful indiscretions in the KKK who had left his bigotry and political extremism in his past when he was welcomed into the priesthood.
But a closer examination of Aitcheson’s 29 years as a priest tells a different story–a story of a still high-profile priest-activist.
Diocesan and other records show that after his ordination as a priest, William “Father Bill”” Aitcheson remained an outspoken political activist on issues of abortion, homosexuality, and racial issues and has continued to promote the just cause of the confederacy during the civil war.
Aitcheson and Pro Life Activism
Aitcheson’s roots in anti-abortion activism began while he was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan when his bombing schemes targeted those with opposing views on race and abortion issues simultaneously, according to court documents and law enforcement officials.
Aitcheson gave undercover Maryland law enforcement officers who infiltrated Aitcheson’s Klan group documents “illustrating how to maim and kill, instant death,” Maryland state investigator Frank Rauschenberg told a Maryland court in March 1977 records obtained during a three-month investigation show. Aitcheson “provided me with these copies. He actually gave me a book and I made copies of it. The book was titled ‘How to Kill’.”
He “was focus(ed) upon the civil war between whites and blacks,” Rauschenberg said. “He had mentioned the use of explosives on the NAACP offices in Prince George’s County and also Washington, D.C. He mentioned as to how vulnerable Fort Meade was in regards to knocking out the power source. He mentioned abortion centers in the same area, Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C.”
“In February of (1977) I met with Mr. Aitcheson. He stated we were going to have to begin our terrorist and sabotage acts and begin the revolution within a year’s time.”
After being ordained a priest in Nevada in 1988, Aitcheson appears to have subordinated his former KKK pulpit of racial intolerance and allied himself with the pro-life movement, including some violent extremists.
A 2013 official Catholic diocese of Arlington Virginia biography says of Aitcheson’s time as a priest in the Reno diocese only that he “served there for five years. During that time, he was involved in Operation Rescue.” The reference to Operation Rescue has since been omitted from the official biography of Aitcheson released by the diocese in August when Aitcheson’s KKK past was revealed.
In May of 1992, when Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King sparking widespread rioting, Aitcheson told his parishioners at St. Therese the Little Flower Church, according to the Reno Gazette Journal, “I can’t help think that the Rodney King verdict was motivated in some part because of the rise in crime, and most people want to see the police get tough.”
At the same time in 1992, Aitcheson led daily protests outside a Reno medical clinic which included some extremist members of Operation Rescue who were later convicted of conducting a nationwide campaign of bombing abortion clinics and shooting doctors providing abortion services.
While a priest in Nevada Aitcheson was also on the board of and a spokesman for the Northern Nevada chapter of the Christian Action Council, a pro-life group then known for confrontational public demonstrations in front of clinics.
Records show a string of incendiary letters from “Father Bill” Aitcheson to the editor published in the Reno Gazette Journal newspaper in 1992 and 1993 while he served as associate pastor at the St Therese Church of the Little Flower in Reno.
Aitcheson wrote that “the so-called ‘pro choice advocates’” were “callously forsaking human life” to “build their political power base on the corpses of America’s future,” adding to “kill one’s own pre born child by abortion is a political act…”
In 1992 Aitcheson held daily protests at the West End Women’s Group clinic in Reno that was simultaneously targeted in a series of high-profile bombings. A member of Aitcheson’s Operation Rescue was a domestic terrorist, Rachelle Ranae “Shelly” Shannon, who began a nationwide terror campaign of arson and bombings and shootings at abortion clinics with several attacks at the Reno West End Clinic.
On Aug. 18, 1992 Shannon set the West End Women’s Group clinic on fire and on Sept. 16, 1992, “she asked to use the restroom and made a hole in the wall with an ice pick and emptied hypos of butryc acid” inside the clinic, according to Federal court indictment documents, a tactic detailed in the terror manual of the “Army of God”, designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist group. At the time, Father Aitcheson was holding daily protests outside the same clinic confronting patients and clinic workers attempting to enter the medical facility.
Aitcheson served as a spokesman for Reno anti-abortion activists during these high-profile spate of bombings against the same Reno medical clinic that provided abortion services where Aitcheson, dressed in full priest garb and collar, maintained a daily personal vigil harassing and yelling biblical condemnations at arriving patients and clinic workers.
Although there is no evidence Aitcheson was directly connected to the attacks, Aitcheson did publicly lash out at those who objected to the violence at the abortion clinic, tried to cast the bombings as a deceptive political act by abortion center employees, and condemned local residents who complained they feared for their safety living near the protests .
“I was appalled to read what appeared to be a public relations spread for abortionist Eugene Glick. Did the author of the article consider that there may be another angle to the vandalism?” Aitcheson wrote in a letter to the editor to the Reno Gazette on Aug. 29, 1992. “It is possible … that the abortionists at West End may have had a hand in the vandalism in order to inflame passions against those of us who are involved in street level activism in front of the abortion mill.”
“If ‘government control of private life’ is the ‘key premise in this struggle,’ then to kill one’s own pre born child by abortion is a political act calculated to free the woman from government interference,” Aitcheson wrote. “If personal freedom is what government symbolizes, what social purpose does child bearing symbolize? How can the so-called ‘pro choice advocates’ deny to the civil authority its most essential obligation to protect human life, which they callously forsake as they build their political power base on the corpses of America’s future.”
Aitcheson said he had been accused of seven acts of violence against the clinic in the previous two months. “We were condemned as causing this (violence). We want to let people know we did not. We deplore the violence.”
The nationwide terror campaign of arson, bombings, and shooting at abortion clinics by Rachelle Shannon began with her several attacks at the West End Clinic in Reno where Aitcheson had been demonstrating for more than a year.
It was then that Shannon launched a cross-country terror spree of bombings culminating in the shooting of an abortion clinic doctor in Wichita, Kansas. In October 1994, already serving a 10-year sentence in Kansas on state charges for the attempted murder of Wichita physician George Tiller in 1993, Shannon was arrested and convicted for the attacks in Reno. Shannon is now doing 40 years in federal prison and remains unrepentant.
A federal indictment in 1994 charged and convicted her with “arson at the West End Women’s Health Group in Reno, Nevada on August 18, 1992” and an “acid attack on West End Women’s Health Group in Reno, Nevada on September 16, 1992.”
Between these two terror attacks, Father Aitcheson launched a public campaign attacking those who objected to the violent terror attacks, including writing an incendiary letter on August 29, 1992 to the Reno Gazette Journal editor. “In the August 19 article ‘Doctor, Neighbors fear potential for disaster,’ I was appalled to read what appeared to be a public relations spread for abortionist Eugene Glick. Did the author of the article consider that there may be another angle to the vandalism (of the West End Women’s Medical Group)? It appears that the Gazette Journal has already tried the pro-life activists here and found us guilty. On the other hand it is possible due to the circumstances of the incidents that are a matter of public record that the abortionists at West End may have had a hand in the vandalism in order to inflame passions against those of us who are involved in street level activism in front of the abortion mill.”
But it was the conclusion of his letter that drew the ire of several residents who lived in the neighborhood of the West End Clinic.
“Now as far as the neighbors: Anyone who lives in the dark shadow of an abortuary and does not resist the slaughter gets no sympathy from me. Indifference to the presence of evil is complicity in its fruits. Shame on you!” he wrote, signing it “Father William M. Aitcheson, St Theresa Church of the Little Flower, Christian Action Council Board member.”
“Shame on you, Father Aitcheson!,” responded one Reno resident.
“If ignorance could be personified in a prominent member of the community, then Father Aitcheson would be that person. Your holier than thou, disparaging comments directed at the terrified people living in the vicinity of the West End are irresponsible and inexcusable,” wrote another Reno resident, Jennifer Wylie, in a September 23, 1992 letter in response to the Catholic priest William “Father Bill” Aitcheson. “You demonstrate a complete lack of sensitivity toward the people who look to you for that very quality. Hang up your collar, step outside your sanctuary and take to the streets of the people who are directly impacted by the violence you condone. Perhaps you would realize that many people less fortunate than yourself do not have much choice as to where they live. Many of these people struggle to make it day-to-day without the worry that their children will be blown up in their front yards. Your intimidation tactics are nothing short of spiritual and psychological terrorism. You are the only one guilty of ‘indifference’ on this issue. If there is any ‘shame’ to be passed down here, it is for you to hear.”
The Catholic diocese of Reno, while now acknowledging they were fully aware of Aitcheson’s Ku Klux Klan past, at the time withheld the fact he was a convicted racial domestic terrorist from his parishioners and the public.
Less than a month later, on October 22, Aitcheson, while serving as the parochial vicar at St. Therese the Little Flower Church in Reno, was arrested on charges of trespassing on the property of the West End Clinic trying to prevent a woman patient from being escorted into the medical facility. The director of the clinic claims Aitcheson was also charged with assault and batter, but no records show such a charge was filed.
“Oh, I remember him very well,” said Dr. Damon Stutes, the head of the West End Medical Clinic in a September interview. “He was very mouthy, loud, and violent. He came on to the clinic property and knocked one of our staff—a girl who was maybe 4 foot 9 who escorted patients through the demonstrators—to the ground. She was between him and a patient getting out of a car. He was charged with assault and battery.”
“Aitcheson was dressed in full priest garb screaming at everybody, pacing back and forth like a caged animal, every day for more than a year,” the doctor said.
Aitcheson’s conduct at the West End abortion clinic so angered some residents in Reno that they held a highly publicized demonstration in front of his St Theresa of the Little Flower church in November 1992 while Aitcheson was awaiting trial. “It’s a very sad, feeble attempt at attacking the church. The Roman Catholic church supports the sanctity of life at all stages,” Aitcheson told reporters at the time.
“There is a systematic blindness against pro-lifers. If a pro-lifer goes to court, he is automatically considered guilty” wrote Aitcheson when he was convicted for trespassing at the Reno clinic. “That is an example of the pro-aborts using the people they have in their hip pockets to crush legitimate dissent,” he said referring to the Free Access To Clinics (FACE) legislation that had been just passed by U.S. congress.
Immediately after being convicted in Nevada, Aitcheson was transferred to the Arlington Virginia diocese. An Arlington diocese official biography of Aitcheson from 2008, since omitted from the current official church biography, reads “he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas at the Cathedral of St. Thomas Aquinas in Reno Dec. 10, 1988, and served there for five years. During that time, he was involved in Operation Rescue.”
Aitcheson was aggressively unrepentant after his arrest in October 1992 and defended his actions at the clinic. “I was definitely cited wrongly. I was exercising my First Amendment right to speech, I was carrying a sign and I was saying my rosary out loud,” Aitcheson was quoted as saying in the Reno Gazette-Journal. “I think there’s an attempt to get rid of us off the sidewalk,” Aitcheson said.
Dr. Stutes said the clinic was “protecting our patients from the harassment that these maniacs have been putting them through for years.”
The next month, Aitcheson, in his capacity as spokesman for the Christian Action Council, dismissed the bombings, arson, and acid attacks at the clinic he had protested outside of for more than a year. “Whatever violent activities that have been done are remote cases and not at all common,” he told reporters.
That same month the U.S. congress passed legislation known as the Free Access To Clinics (FACE) intended to mitigate pro-life demonstrators from blocking access to medical clinics that provided abortion services. “That is an example of the pro-aborts using the people they have in their hip pockets to crush legitimate dissent,” he said.
Aitcheson’s arrest garnered significant publicity, and he obliquely broached his past involvement in the Ku Klux Klan in open court.
At his Dec. 23, 1992, trial in Reno, Aitcheson acknowledged, “on the stand that at age 20 or 21 he was sentenced to four years probation for sending a threatening communication through the mail. Aitcheson called it a political crime,” according to the Reno Gazette-Journal at the time.
What was not mentioned in court was that the “threatening communication” were death threats Aitcheson made against Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1976 while he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was that year that Maryland law enforcement and the FBI say Aitcheson was plotting to bomb abortion clinics in Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Transfer to Arlington
Within months of Aitcheson’s conviction in Reno, he quietly was transferred to the Catholic diocese of Arlington Virginia. In August, the Diocese of Reno said it could not confirm whether the incident was why Aitcheson was moved to the Arlington, Va., diocese. “Nothing in his files explains the decision to move,” said Reno diocese spokesperson Rev. Robert W. Chorey. Chorey said in a later interview Aitcheson was transferred “at his request.”
Aitcheson immediately resumed his pro-life activism while an associate pastor assigned to St. Elizabeth’s parish in Colonial Beach, Virginia. He brought with him “pro-life direct action,” according to a Virginia parishioner.
“Colonial Beach was Father’s first assignment in the diocese. I suspect he came here because this diocese had a great reputation for orthodoxy,” said Mary Ann Kreitzer, a conservative activist in the Arlington diocese who first met Aitcheson in 1993. “He was a solid, faithful priest who loved the faith and wanted to defend the innocent. We had a lot in common since I was a pro-life activist who was educating, sidewalk counseling, rescuing, working with crisis pregnancy centers, etc. I respected him from our first meeting.”
“I’ve been to jail myself three times, once for 24 days because of trying to save babies from abortion,” she said in interviews in September. “So, needless to say, I considered Fr. Aitcheson heroic for his willingness to risk arrest and jail time to save lives. Knowing he had been to jail and knew exactly what he faced makes me respect him even more.”
“At least once when he was preaching from the pulpit on Catholic truth, someone got up and walked out. He continued to preach the truth. I never heard him raise his voice or treat anyone with anything but respect,” she said.
Aitcheson and Race
While the dioceses of Reno and Arlington now acknowledge they were aware of Aitcheson’s former membership in the Ku Klux Klan at the time he was accepted into each diocese, they both released a similarly worded statement in August:
“There have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Fr. Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington,” said the Arlington diocese.
“During his time serving in the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas as a priest no accusations of racism or bigotry were made,” reads another statement released simultaneously by the Reno diocese.
On May 3, 1992, Aitcheson, then the newly appointed pastor to Saint Theresa of the Little Flower parish in Reno, gave a sermon in the wake of the not guilty verdict of Los Angeles police accused of beating Rodney King, which sparked violent riots across the country. “I can’t help think that the Rodney King verdict was motivated in some part because of the rise in crime, and most people want to see the police get tough,” Aitcheson said.
The text of the sermon was released by Aitcheson during riots and demonstrations that took place in Nevada in the wake of the King verdict. It was printed in a Reno church bulletin in May 1992 and referenced in the religion section of the Reno Star Gazette newspaper archives.
But the support of conservative parishioners in the Arlington diocese such as Mary Ann Kreitzer might not be comforting to those who question whether Aitcheson has renounced his racist political views from his days in the Ku Klux Klan. Kreitzer, who publishes the blog “LesFemmes-The Truth” advocating allegiance to conservative church views called Aitcheson a “staunch advocate of the pro-life movement defending unborn babies — no matter what their color. Fr. Bill had participated in pro-life direct action in Reno and later here in Virginia. He encouraged me in my rescue and sidewalk counseling efforts. I never once heard a racist word from his lips and he was one of the few pastors in the diocese I ever heard preach boldly about the culture of death and the evils of contraception and abortion. I often went to him after Mass just to say thank-you for his courageous homilies.”
But Kreitzer’s views on race, slavery, and the just cause of the confederacy are unlikely to assuage skepticism that many hold on whether Father Aitcheson has rejected his racist past.
“Since blacks who represent about thirteen percent of the population have over thirty percent of the abortions in this country, anyone who fights abortion is clearly defending the rights of baby slaves in the womb considered the property of their mothers. Fighting abortion fights black genocide. Perhaps Fr. Bill’s pro-life actions were his way of atoning for past sins of racism. Rescue black babies!”
She calls the civil war “clearly a war of aggression” by the North and condemns “the scorched earth war crimes by northern generals.”
“I have a confession. Like Fr. Bill, I’m pro-Confederate. I believe we would be better off in this country if the South had won the war. Why? Because we would not have the draconian central government we have today,” she wrote Sept. 19.
Aitcheson and the Confederacy
Aitcheson’s strong advocacy for the confederacy during the civil war, and his reverence for their leader Robert T. Lee, has spanned from his childhood through his years with the Ku Klux Klan and remains prominent since he was ordained a priest until the present.
“Bill was in my religion class in 11th grade,” said George Runkle in a series of interviews. Runkle was a classmate of Aitcheson at the prestigious Catholic St John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. “We watched a film in that class on the Civil War, and Bill wrote a rebuttal about how most slaves ‘loyally served their masters in the war’ which got giggles from the black students in the class.”
“He was big into the Civil War, and in particular the Confederacy. To find someone in Washington DC’s Maryland suburbs that is into the Confederacy like he was as a teenager is downright odd. We didn’t grow up around all sorts of monuments and ‘lost cause’ mythology. There was no ‘Confederate Memorial Day’ or any of that stuff,” said Runkle in a series of September interviews. “To Bill it was important. I remember him giving the talk on ‘States Rights’ as the reason for secession, not slavery.”
“He would bring all kinds of Klan literature to school to pass out. I don’t recall the Brothers saying anything,” said Runkle. “He was the most racist person I ever met, always talking about the superior race and white power.”
“I remember he had a Klan business card with a cartoon of a Klansman and a burning cross which read ‘you have just been visited by the Ku Klux Klan. The next visit will be a real one.’”
“I didn’t see him as dangerous, just weird. He didn’t have any friends. He ate lunch by himself — the stereotypical kid who lived in his mother’s basement.”
Shortly afterwards, in late 1976, that Aitcheson formed an extremist breakaway faction of his Klan group and led a 12-man terrorist cell he named the Robert E. Lee Lodge.
Aitcheson’s fixation on lionizing the leader of the confederacy Gen. Robert E. Lee and defending the confederate cause has continued unabated into his recent years serving as a priest.
“The Rev. William M. Aitcheson was my childhood priest and my history teacher,” wrote a former parishioner of Father Aitcheson in the Washington Post in August. “A fervent advocate of the Confederacy, he used to joke about ‘Saint Robert E. Lee’ in his homilies at church. When I was in middle school in the early 2000s, he taught a Civil War history class for the home-school group at my church in the small Shenandoah County town of Woodstock, VA. I trusted him when he taught us that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights, not slavery; that the South’s cause was noble and just,” she wrote.
From 1997 to 2000, Aitcheson served as an associate pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he “lived near the Chancellorsville battlefield west of Fredericksburg, and his love of the Civil War era was right at hand. He had on display in the rectory a wealth of original Civil War memorabilia, which he had collected since his youth,” reads an official history of the St. John Bosco church in Woodstock, Virginia, where Aitcheson served first as administrator from 2000-2002 and then as pastor until the summer of 2005 when he took a medical leave.
While at John Bosco, Aitcheson continued as a vocal and steadfast proponent of conservative church activism. In May of 2004, Aitcheson presided over a memorial services for fallen confederate troops. He offered a prayer to fallen confederate soldiers and read the “Conquered Banner,” a poem written by another Catholic priest, Fr. Abram Ryan, a Confederate army chaplain.
“Then Aitcheson turned to the crowd and said, ‘Let’s sing the old national anthem,’” according an account of the service in the Fredericksburg Freelance Star. “He raised his voice, and soon, everyone joined in, singing the chorus:
O, I wish I was in Dixie!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
Away down south in Dixie!”
Father Aitcheson and Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis
It was while pastor of St. John Bosco parish that Aitcheson objected to how the church was reacting to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. U.S. Catholic bishops had adopted the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People established in June 2002, which established guidelines for handling priests accused of abuse and for educating children and adults to mitigate further sexual abuse within the church by priests. The Arlington diocese was beginning to carry out these policies.
“This is an example of the diocese blowing smoke,” Aitcheson told The Washington Post on Jan. 12, 2005, protesting a church proposal called the “Good Touch Bad Touch”, a curriculum to educate students on sexual predators.
“Until we go into the seminaries and root out the homosexuals and dissenters, we will not get at the root of the problem” of child abuse, Aitcheson told the Post.
Officials at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington said that when Aitcheson came to the diocese more than 24 years ago, they “learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart.”
Since 2005 “all staff and clergy have had in-depth background checks” conducted by the Virginia State Police and using the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and fingerprint databases, according to diocese of Arlington spokesman Billy Atwell.
But an investigation easily uncovered FBI case files, including separate files from the FBI fingerprint division, showing the FBI still maintains records of Aitcheson’s fingerprints, 25 of which were identified on death threat mailings he sent to Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
That same month in June 2005 when the Arlington diocese says they completed their background check reviews of church employees, “Father Aitcheson, Pastor of St. John Bosco Catholic Church, took a medical leave,” reads a history of St John Bosco parish published on their website. “In October (he) was reassigned as the Parochial Vicar in the St John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Warrenton, Virginia.”
Declassified FBI records show Aitcheson’s fingerprints have been “retained on file” by the bureau since 1977.
According to diocesan records, on Aug. 12, 2004 “Official criminal history background checks have already been conducted on all priests, teachers, teachers’ aides, and Catholic Charities personnel” and since 1991 “the diocese, has required self-disclosure background questionnaires from all employees and volunteers.”
Arlington Diocese officials declined to comment on why Aitcheson was given an abrupt medical leave and effectively demoted from Pastor in one parish to Parochial Vicar in another five months later. The Diocese “have said everything we can to this point,” Director of Media Relations Angela Pellerano responded to an inquiry on October 5.
The Arlington diocese has been markedly reluctant to comment on Aitcheson’s tenure as a priest in the diocese over the last 24 years, releasing curt tidbits of information only under pressure in the days after the dioceses’ revelation of Aitcheson’s history with the Ku Klux Klan on August 21.
Arlington spokesman Billy Atwell said on August 24: “At the time he [Aitcheson] began ministry here in 1993, the diocese learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart, but Aitcheson’s past was not common knowledge to current staff 24 years later.”
The publicity over Aitcheson’s Klan past has created “the perfect storm for Catholic hate, particularly priest hate which never needs much instigation,” wrote Mary Ann Kreitzer, the Orthodox Catholic activist who said in September interviews she “knows Father very well” through their shared pro-life activism. “If Fr. Bill never returns to ministry, you can add his lynching to your resume” she wrote, denouncing Aitcheson’s former home school student and parishioner who forced Aitcheson’s KKK past into public sphere last August.
Some Arlington diocese parishioners have accused those who discuss the issue publicly of detraction, or saying something that is true but “discloses someone’s faults or failings to someone who does not know them.”
“The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God,” Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said August 23.
Father William Aitcheson still serves as a priest in Catholic diocese of Arlington, but has been on a “temporary leave of absence” since the initial revelations of his past history with the Ku Klux Klan. A statement by the Arlington diocese public relations office on December 8 said “plans for his future priestly ministry are still being discerned.”