Church says convicted domestic terrorist priest has “no obligation under Church law” to pay U.S. court judgements to racial hate crime victims
By Nate Thayer
December 10, 2017
(This is the 2nd in a four-part series on the Catholic Church giving sanctuary to a convicted Ku Klux Klan domestic terrorist now serving as a priest in the Catholic diocese of Virginia. No quotation of this copyrighted material, in whole or in part, is permitted without the express written permission of the author)
Part II: From Klansman to priest
After Ku Klux Klan Exalted Cyclops Bill Aitcheson was convicted on hate crime and bomb making charges in 1977, he vanished for 40 years, reluctantly re-emerging last August as Catholic priest Fr. William Aitcheson when his KKK past and Catholic priest present first faced the harsh glare of public scrutiny.
How had he become a priest in the Arlington diocese near where he had terrorized as a Klansman? And how was that secret kept for so long?
A three-month investigation, including more than 1000 pages of court documents thought to be destroyed decades ago, and more than 100 interviews with Catholic church officials, law enforcement, and Ku Klux Klan comrades of the priest shows that Aitcheson was ushered through a series of church institutions into the priesthood.
While numerous senior church officials were aware of his résumé as a violent leader of the racist hate group, his whereabouts have been kept secret from federal courts, victims of his crimes, lawyers, and the United States Marshal Service who have been trying to locate him for forty years.
Immediately after being convicted by Maryland and federal courts for racial crimes in 1977, Aitcheson skipped town and entered a series of church institutions. Senior clergy in at least three dioceses shielded his Klan past and whereabouts while his Klan victims and U.S. courts spent years trying to serve him legal actions.
The investigation of the church’s role providing sanctuary to Aitcheson, a stark tale even in an era of highly publicized church cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse scandals, raises anew questions about clerical accountability to the wider church, about the processes for vetting and holding accountable priests for criminal conduct, and whether the clerical culture views itself as above the reach of the law.
In August, the Catholic diocese of Arlington said in a press release “We are coordinating with Father Aitcheson in his efforts to seek reconciliation and make restitution. Father Aitcheson fully understands this is his obligation and that he must do what is possible to make this situation right.”
But in another press release on Friday December 8, the diocese appeared to backtrack and said “Fr. Aitcheson had no legal obligation to make restitution, and it should be clarified that he had no obligation under Church law either” to pay federal court ordered restitution to the victims of his racist hate crimes.
“Fr. Aitcheson felt a moral obligation to pay as much as he could. The Diocese supported this decision,” the Arlington diocese said.
In November, the two sides reached an agreement four decades after Aitcheson fled from his legal obligations into effectively hiding in the priesthood. “We have reached an agreement with the Butler family that has been signed, implemented, and finalized,” said Aitcheson’s attorney Mark Dare in an interview on November 28. “There is no confidentiality agreement,” he added.
On Friday, the Arlington diocese claimed “the restitution and attorney’s fees have been paid by Fr. Aitcheson from his private funds and a personal loan” but three sources close to the case said that the Arlington diocese secured the services of the IslerDare law firm, arranged for the payment of both legal fees and the checks sent to Aitcheson’s hate crime victims issued on the account of the IslerDare law firm, and arranged the “personal loan” to Aitcheson to pay the settlement of the outstanding civil judgements.
Dare said he is “representing only Father Aitcheson” and not the Catholic Church, but declined to say whose funds were used to pay the Butler family for the delinquent court ordered judgments. But Dare’s IslerDare law firm website states his “firm represents employers” only, suggesting that Aitcheson would not be eligible to be a client without a direct agreement between his employer, the Catholic diocese of Arlington and IslerDare.
IslerDare is “dedicated exclusively to the representation of management in all aspects of labor, employment and employee benefits law,” according to the IslerDare website. “The Firm represents employers” only and “provides employers with ongoing assistance and advice relating to every facet of the employer-employee relationship…”
On September 8, two checks totaling $23,000 were issued by Dare’s law firm to the Butler family lawyer, according to sources close to the case, using Church funds, but the checks were returned “as they didn’t include interest” from the April 1982 civil court judgment, according to Ted Williams, the Butler family lawyer. Interest from the unpaid judgment ordered by the court in April 1982 amounts to more than $60,000.
Father Aitcheson on the run protected by the Catholic Church
During the 35 years Aitcheson has been on the run from federal courts and the victims of his hate crimes, Aitcheson was accepted into the seminary and later ordained as a priest by the Catholic diocese of Reno-Las Vegas and transferred to and incardinated in the Arlington, Virginia diocese—both of whom were aware of his convictions for KKK hate crimes—while Aitcheson prepared to enter the priesthood, studied at a Catholic run college, was ordained as a priest in Nevada, and has served since for 25 years as a priest in the Catholic diocese of Arlington, Virginia while he in hiding from courts attempting to serve subpoenas and enforce court judgments , court documents, church statements, and interviews show.
Abetted by some priests, at least three Catholic diocese, and other church run entities, Aitcheson has fought hard to have his whereabouts kept secret since the 1970’s.
Some, including the prestigious Pontifical North American College in Rome where Aitcheson studied from 1984 until 1988, were apparently mislead when Aitcheson’s white supremacist résumé was withheld by his sponsoring Reno-Las Vegas diocese, according to college officials.
Meanwhile, victims of Aitcheson’s Klan crimes brought civil charges against him and were awarded judgments by a federal court in 1982.
Aitcheson objected to a federal judge order that he provide the court his current and future address and inform the court if he moved. The court and victims of Aitcheson’s hate crimes had “not known of Aitcheson’s whereabouts for the last five years,” his attorney argued to the judge in April 1982, and there “has not been a need demonstrated to know Aitcheson’s address over the next five years.”
During that 10-year span from 1978 through 1988, while Aitcheson refused to divulge his whereabouts, he was fast tracked to ordination as a priest.
In 1977, Aitcheson was charged separately in three Maryland counties and U.S. federal court 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. A federal court sentenced him to 60 days in a federal prison hospital for “psychiatric evaluation” which he began Sept. 7, 1977, and four years federal supervised probation.
A 1978 federal court document states “These were not isolated incidents. They were part of an ongoing conspiracy by Aitcheson and other, unidentified individuals which had as its ultimate goal an ‘armed’ revolution against black and Jewish persons.”
The domestic terror cell Aitcheson led, the Klan Berets, was “fashioned after the U.S. army Green Berets, declared its purposes to be military training and the use of light arms, bombs, fire bombs, and guerrilla tactics for the coming ‘revolution’ against blacks and others.”
“In February 1977, Aitcheson discussed with Inspector Rauschenberg his plans to ‘conduct attacks’ on military installations and other sites, including Ft Meade and its power station, the use of explosives against abortion centers and NAACP offices in Prince George’s County, Maryland and Washington, D.C. He also proposed putting toxic chemicals into the District of Columbia water supply during the upcoming ‘revolution’,” reads the court document.
“Aitcheson believed that the ‘revolution’, or armed struggle against blacks, Jews, and others would take place ‘within a year’s time’ of the organization of the Klan Beret” which was formed in April 1976.”
On January 20, 1978, weeks after being released from the federal prison hospital, Aitcheson entered King’s College in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He was still on supervised federal and Maryland probation, according to court documents obtained during an investigation.
Five months later, in June 1978, a U.S. federal court initiated another civil court case against Aitcheson brought by three of his Ku Klux Klan victims, but Aitcheson had skipped town and for four decades until this August, neither the court or his Klan victims knew his whereabouts.
Between 1978 and 1982, a federal court sent Aitcheson at least 12 subpoenas at his King’s College and home addresses, some served by U.S. Marshalls directly to priests, and 11 of them were ignored. Aitcheson refused to appear until a judge threatened him with contempt of court in late 1980. During that one appearance Aitcheson refused to disclose where he was living.
Until this week, civil judgments awarding damages to his Klan hate crime victims have been ignored and court ordered compensation to a black family and two Jewish Rabbis 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 victims.
“Aitcheson has been elusive, has refused to accept mail and has otherwise apparently tried to avoid service,” reads another November 1978 court document.
The following month King’s College dean of students Fr. Albert D’Alonzo instructed U.S. Federal Marshals to serve Aitcheson a court subpoena in the priest’s office, according to U.S. Marshal documents.
Aitcheson was “served at Father D’Alonzo, Dean of Students, located at the Administration office, 3rd floor, River street”, according to a January 19, 1979 Marshal Service document. Aitcheson ignored that subpoena as well.
On at least three occasions in 1978 and 1979, Federal Marshals served Aitcheson court subpoenas in the office of Fr. D’Alonzo—all of which Aitcheson ignored, refusing to appear in court.
Aitcheson’s “whereabouts were unknown” still in 1980, according to another federal court document, until federal judge Frank Kaufman issued a notice Aitcheson would be held in contempt if he continued to fail to appear.
In a September 29, 1980 deposition, the attorney for a black family on whose front lawn Aitcheson had burned a cross asked Aitcheson “where do you live now?” He responded “I respectfully refuse to answer that question because the answer may tend to incriminate me.”
At the time, Aitcheson had begun the process of being ushered through Catholic church institutions into the priesthood.
In a letter to federal Judge Kaufman in October, 1981, Aitcheson complained that “I had completed my obligations to society for my offenses” and 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.”
“I have been tried and convicted and punished for my crimes,” Aitcheson wrote. “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 Catholic diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph run school and the ‘job on the regular payroll’ he sought was as a priest for the Catholic Church.
Beginning in the fall of 1981, “I started teaching at the 7th and 8th grade level as a volunteer, teaching all academic subjects as well as religion” at the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph school, Aitcheson wrote the judge in October 1981 without divulging the location or name or church affiliation of the school. “The encouragement I am receiving from my colleagues is tremendous, along with a strengthening of my faith…I feel I have made a start on a career that will allow me to give much to these young people.”
At the time, Aitcheson was on the payroll of the diocese of Kansas City who were also providing him with room and board.
Monsignor Robert Murphy, who was at the time the diocesan vocation director and now pastor of St. Bridget Catholic Church in Kansas City, Missouri, remembered Aitcheson. “I remember him, yes. But it was a long time ago,” he said in a September interview, referring questions to the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese who declined to comment.
A 2013 diocese of Arlington biography of Aitcheson confirms Aitcheson “was an elementary and high school teacher in Missouri for two years” in the early 1980s. Arlington diocese references to this period are omitted from his current diocesan official biography.
In August 1981, Aitcheson’s attorney William Brennan said “It is only this fall, some four years after his incarceration, that Mr. Aitcheson has been able to obtain significant, mature employment. He hopes to begin a new job this fall in a state considerably removed from the State of Maryland.” Brennan was referring to his “employment” being accepted into the seminary for priesthood by the Catholic church.
In April 1982, while Aitcheson was teaching in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the federal court and his Klan victims were still “unaware of Aitcheson’s whereabouts”, Aitcheson’s attorney wrote judge Kaufman protesting a court order to identify Aitcheson’s location.
Also at that time Aitcheson protested the court order requiring Aitcheson’s future address. “There simply has not been a need demonstrated to know Aitcheson’s address for the next five years,” his attorney said in a written letter to the U.S. federal court.
But in the April 21, 1982 decision awarding Aitcheson’s victims $26,000 in damages, the federal court judge Frank Kaufman “ORDERED that defendant William M. Aitcheson will inform the plaintiffs, through their counsel, of his present address and any change in his address during the next five years commencing from the date of this order.”
Aitcheson has refused the court order in the 35 years since. Aitcheson refused to comply with both those court orders as well, and skipped town again.
His whereabouts have remained unknown to his victims or the courts in the 35 years since, but not to the Bishops of the dioceses’ of Arlington, Virginia and Reno-Las Vegas, Nevada.
Within months, Aitcheson was accepted as a seminarian into the diocese of Reno-Las Vegas to be ordained as a priest.
Aitcheson’s lawyer wrote the court that “under the circumstances I can only say that you must deal with him directly.”
An April 1982 newspaper article said Aitcheson “is said to have left the state and the Klan and found God”.
“We had heard that he had a conversion and found religion,” Stephen Fennel, an attorney in the civil suit against Aitcheson said in an interview. “But we were never able to find out where he was to enforce the court judgment. We did not have any idea he had entered the priesthood.”
During the ten-year span from 1978 to 1988 Aitcheson was fast-tracked from Holy Cross Order run King’s college, to teach for the Kansas City diocese, accepted into the Reno-Las Vegas diocese as a seminarian by Bishop Norman McFarland in 1983, sponsored by the Bishop to attend the prestigious North American college in Rome in 1984, and ordained by Reno-Las Vegas Bishop Daniel F. Walsh on December 10, 1988.
The 1982 civil judgment against Aitcheson was a high-profile matter of public record at the time. The story was front page of the Washington Post and reported by a number of national wires services.
President Ronald Reagan, after reading the Washington Post story, spontaneously visited the home of an Aitcheson cross burning victim in April 1982, garnering another spurt of national media.
Reagan visited the home of Philip and Barbara Butler to reassure them that the cross-burning five years before was ”not something that should have ever happened in America.”
”I thought maybe I might just call attention to how reprehensible something of this kind is,” Reagan said, adding ”how much I regretted any unpleasantness that they may have had because there shouldn’t be any place in our country for that sort of thing.”
Aitcheson’s “whereabouts were unknown,” New York Times said in an April 1982 article on Reagan’s visit.
“At the time the then Mr. Aitcheson was applying to the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, he admitted his past involvement with the KKK and talked about his conversion experience,” said the diocese in a statement on August 23. “Those persons in charge at the time, acknowledging that conversion, accepted him into the seminary.”
“However, the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas at that time had no knowledge of any civil judgments imposed upon Fr. Aitcheson from his days prior to joining the diocese,” the diocese of Reno said.
“The Diocese of Arlington learned this past weekend of civil damages awarded in 1982 in a case involving Fr. William Aitcheson,” said that diocese in a statement the day after Aitcheson’s history as a Klansman became public last August.
Some observers are skeptical. “They may be worried they have liability exposure if they admit they knew of his outstanding legal judgments,” said former priest Patrick Walls, an investigator for Wisconsin law firm Anderson Advocates that has represented hundreds of Church sexual abuse victims.
“All the Arlington diocese had to do was Google him,”, said Butler family lawyer Ted Williams in an October interview. “The Arlington diocese is complicit.”
Both Aitcheson and the diocese of Arlington continue to refuse to provide his current residence, contact information, or allow him to make a public comment except via the Catholic diocese of Arlington public relations office.
In 1983, Aitcheson was accepted into the diocese of Reno, although spokesman Fr. Robert W. Chorey declined to explain why Aitcheson, who had no previous connection to Nevada, entered that diocese.
According to former priest Walls “The Reno-Las Vegas diocese has always been a place of 2nd and 3rd chances for priests who have gotten in trouble elsewhere.”
Msgr. Chorey said that when Aitcheson was accepted into the seminary in April 1983 “he admitted his past involvement with the KKK and talked about his conversion experience.”
In the fall of 1984, Aitcheson enrolled at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, a prestigious seminary where students are hand selected and personally sponsored by a diocesan bishop.
North American College has strict entrance conditions which state that “a letter of recommendation from a parish priest or another ecclesiastic is not enough,” according to college admission documents.
“None of the staff knew [Aitcheson] had a KKK past at North American College,” said Fr. Joseph T. Donnelly in an interview. Donnelly was a vice rector at North American College in Rome when Aitcheson attended and now serves in the Hartford, Connecticut diocese. “That I know for sure. There was never even a whisper or rumor.”
Donnelly emphasized that Aitcheson’s Klan involvement “certainly” should have been passed to the school from the diocese. “It is up to the bishop in the diocese to vet a student’s suitability for the priesthood. We relied on the local diocese to do the screening and if he was involved in the Ku Klux Klan that is information we would want to know, but we did not. I would have remembered that.”
Robert Mickens, a Rome-based journalist who attended the college with Aitcheson wrote “The bishops that sponsored, ordained and then incardinated the priest, they are the ones that have the most explaining to do.” Mickens said in a September interview Aitcheson was nicknamed “Rambo” while at North American College and said he recalled fellow students asking “why would this guy want to be a priest and who would want him to be a priest?”
“Bill would have been one I would have thought least likely to be accepted into the priesthood, given his personal relating skills,” Fr. Doug Hennessy, an administrator at the North American College while Aitcheson was there and now retired in Indiana, recalled in an interview.
Bishop Norman McFarland of the Reno diocese who sponsored Aitcheson to attend NAC has since died and Bishop Daniel Walsh, who ordained Aitcheson in 1988, is now retired and declined to respond to several messages.
Aitcheson earned a degree in sacred theology from North American College University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1988. That summer, he was assigned pastoral duties in Reno-Las Vegas and was ordained a priest Dec. 10, 1988.
He immediately became a high-profile activist in the anti-abortion movement, taking membership in Operation Rescue and Christian Action Council, both known for confrontational public demonstrations at abortion clinics. (See Related Story)
After his conviction for trespassing at a clinic, Aitcheson left Reno to assume duties as a priest in the Catholic diocese of Arlington, Virginia in 1993.
Aitcheson was back in his old neighborhood, but the victims of his crimes would not know that for years.
While both Reno and Arlington now acknowledge they knew of Aitcheson’s KKK past when he first was accepted into their dioceses’– in 1983 in Reno and 1993 in Arlington–they both have been adamant that they will not answer details of what specifically they knew or if the diocese conducted any independent due diligence to confirm his version of the story.
“I believe I gave you all the information that I had and that I am able to give,” Fr. Robert Chorey, the spokesman for the diocese of Reno, said in a September 19 email.
VICTIMS SPEAK OUT
The three Klan victims awarded civil federal court judgments in 1982 all remember Aitcheson vividly and said he never made any attempt to contact them, apologize for his deeds, or pay the ordered compensation.
In interviews in September and October, they said they had no idea where Aitcheson has been for the last forty years and were shocked to learn he has been a Catholic priest only minutes from where he targeted them in his racial terror spree.
“There has been no contrition or repentance at all. We have never heard anything from him,” said Rabbi Mendel Abrams, now in his 80s, in a September interview. Abrams headed the Beth Torah synagogue in Hyattsville, Maryland that Aitcheson targeted with a burning Klan cross in March 1976. “Even now, up to this day 40 years later, we have heard nothing. Neither he nor the church has made any effort to contact us. I guess the church is taking care of its own.”
Abrams and his wife recall the day after the cross burning, someone shot a bullet through their home window. “We were really shocked by the events. We were about to leave on vacation the next day and leave our three children with a babysitter. We were afraid to go on vacation and leave our children. It was a very scary, eerie feeling.”
The rabbi and his wife were shaken again when they learned from a reporter that their tormentor has been living nearby for decades. “No one has ever told us that,” he said. “No one has ever told us anything.”
Barbara and Philip Butler, whose house Aitcheson placed a Ku Klux Klan wooden cross wrapped in diesel fuel soaked burlap and set alight on the night of January 30, 1977, have never put the fear from Aitcheson’s acts of racial hatred behind them.
“Most of all, I have a sense of outrage that someone like William Aitcheson could subject me and my family to all the suffering we have endured over the last four years and think nothing of it,” Barbara Butler said. “My husband and I came to the house looking for a new start in life. Mr. Aitcheson has taken that away from us, and, as long as we live, we will never forget the message of racism he wrote all over our lives.”
While Aitcheson was only charged with burning a cross on the Butler’s front lawn, court testimony and interviews with law enforcement paint a more sinister, prolonged plot by Aitcheson against the Butler family, who are also practicing Catholics.
“Mr. Aitcheson had discussed with me the firebombing of a black family in College Park Woods,” testified Maryland fire marshal Frank Rauschenberg at one of Aitcheson’s trials. “He specifically mentioned he wanted to carry out this activity before the Easter holidays. He made mention of this family … the lady being a member of the NAACP and rather vocal as to her beliefs. Mr. Aitcheson was rather agitated towards her.” Rauschenberg infiltrated Aitcheson’s KKK cell group in 1976 in a joint undercover law enforcement investigation of the Maryland Klan.
“He stated to me that the woman had—that the family had moved into a predominantly white neighborhood,” testified Rauschenberg. “He expressed his desire to seek revenge towards this black family by burning a cross on the lawn of this family and also by firebombing this—what I mean by firebombing, I speak more specifically of a Molotov cocktail, and also placing a pipe bomb at the foot of the door of the black family’s home.”
When Aitcheson was ordered by a federal court in 1982 to pay the Butler family $23,000, Aitcheson disappeared.
“It has been years and we have never heard one word or anything,” Philip Butler said in August. “To come to see that he was a priest, I didn’t know what to say.”
“’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’” Barbara Butler said. “But you did know what you did . . . you changed our lives a lot.”
In a November interview, the Butler family lawyer, Ted Williams, said on September 8 Aitcheson, through his lawyer sent two checks totally $23,000 and a letter in a sealed envelope addressed to the Butlers. Both the checks and the unopened letter were returned to Aitcheson’s attorney as “they didn’t cover the interest” and “I questioned the motivation and sincerity,” said the Butler’s attorney Ted Williams.
The unopened September 8 letter from Aitcheson to the Butler’s was released last Friday.
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Butler,
I want to take this opportunity to do what I should have done many years ago and that is to tell you I am deeply sorry for having burned a cross on your front lawn and causing you pain.”
“You became my target at the time because I did not believe that people of different races should live together. I was blinded by hate and ignorance.
Decades ago, before entering the priesthood, I came to reject these abhorrent views. I believe now that all people can live together in peace regardless of race. I also know that symbol of the most enduring love the world has ever known should never be used as a weapon of terror. Its use against you was a despicable act. I sincerely regret the suffering I caused you.”
Prior to Father Aitcheson’s mea culpa, the only previous statement in the last 40 years was a 1981 letter to the federal Judge objecting to having to pay compensation, complaining of the unfair “burden” of the civil actions taken against him by Rabbi Abrams, the Butler’s, and Rabbi Robert Sachs who headed the Hillel Foundation at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Aitcheson maintained that “some of the charges and innuendoes were untrue” and insisted he had “completed my obligations to society for my offences.”
“This continued litigation has caused my family and me great concern, not allowing us to finally see an end to the suffering and humiliation we have endured,” he wrote the court. “I would hope that awarding of the judgment would satisfy the Plaintiff’s desire for retribution. Further involvement and penalty would only serve to heighten dispair (sic) and encourage bitterness.”
In contrast, the Reno and Arlington dioceses’ have only been specific about, in carefully crafted legal language, what they claim they did not know about Aitcheson’s Klan past, placing the burden of legal responsibility on Aitcheson and removed it from church.
“Fr. Aitcheson fully acknowledges that the Butler family deserved and deserves an apology,” read an official diocese of Arlington statement on August 23. “The Diocese is encouraging Fr. Aitcheson to fulfill his legal and moral obligations to the Butler family.”
“The Diocese of Arlington learned this past weekend of civil damages awarded in 1982 in a case involving Fr. William Aitcheson. We are coordinating with Father Aitcheson in his efforts to seek reconciliation and make restitution. Father Aitcheson fully understands this is his obligation and that he must do what is possible to make this situation right,” the diocese said in another statement two days after they first publicly revealed the priest’s Ku Klux Klan résumé.
“The Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas at that time had no knowledge of any civil judgments imposed upon Fr. Aitcheson from his days prior to joining the diocese,” the Reno Diocese said in a separate statement also in August.
The diocese of Arlington has refused to reveal any details of what they knew of Fr. Aitcheson’s history as a violent KKK terrorist, releasing curt tidbits of information only under pressure in the days after the dioceses’ revelation of Father Aitcheson’s Klan past on August 21.
“I would have preferred to forget. The reality is, we cannot forget, we should not forget. Our actions have consequences and 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 wrote on August 21. “God forgives everyone who truly repents.”
But some are dismissive of Aitcheson’s and the Reno and Arlington diocese claims of conversion and repentance.
On August 19, congregants recall a flurry of uneasy activity, as the mass was delayed at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church where Aitcheson served as a Parochial Vicar until he abruptly failed to show up that day. Someone announced that “an emergency” had prevented Aitcheson from being present.
“Father has acknowledged his responsibility to resolve the civil judgments arising from his actions in the 1970s in a just manner,” a statement by the Bishop of Arlington, Michael Burbidge read to the congregation a week later. “I will remain in dialogue with Fr. Aitcheson and will communicate his future plans to you once they are prayerfully discerned and determined.
The Arlington diocese said Aitcheson “will not be available for interviews.”
They also emphasized those responsible for Aitcheson entering their diocese, ordaining him in Reno, and incardinating him in Arlington are either dead or no longer active. “At the time he 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,” Arlington diocese spokesman Billy Atwell said August 24.
“The church is trying to construct an exit strategy. They are in damage control mode and doing as much as possible to distance themselves from legal liability,” said David Cook, a prominent civil attorney who represented the Goldman family in their civil suit against O.J. Simpson and the victims of the 1983 marine barracks bombing in Beirut Lebanon. “But the church is in the business of selling morality. They have a moral responsibility to repent for their misconduct. Putting money in people’s hands is penance, not trying to beat a hasty retreat out the back door. This is about the church, not Fr. Aitcheson. The church has an opportunity to start down the road to Damascus.”
Aitcheson first served as a parish priest in Las Vegas for three years after being ordained in 1988, but the Director of Vocations and Vicar for Clergy Fr. Ron Zanoni of the now Diocese of Las Vegas responded on October 1st that “his records have remained with the Diocese of Reno. Therefore, I would recommend contacting them about any history on Fr. Aitcheson.”
King’s College spokesman John M. McAndrew declined to answer a series of questions about what the college knew when Aitcheson entered as a student in January 1978. “Regarding the interaction between King’s College officials, Mr. Aitcheson, and law enforcement officials, none of the people…named with regard to these documents is still alive and, thus, able to corroborate or deny the information the documents contain.”
On September 19, McAndrew said “Father Al D’Alonzo is deceased and therefore unable to confirm any information regarding his involvement.” McAndrew said King’s College “have been able to confirm that there was no question concerning criminal charges or convictions on the application completed by students (including William Aitcheson) requesting admission to King’s College in the late 1970s,” but refused to answer whether King’s College priests who ran the college knew of Aitcheson’s history as a Ku Klux Klan racial terrorist.
A senior King’s College administration official, who asked not be named, echoed what the Reno and Las Vegas dioceses focused on–their legal exposure to potential liability claims.
“Even if King’s had prior knowledge of Mr. Aitcheson’s criminal background, did the College violate any law by admitting him as a student?” he said. “I’m not aware of any information which indicates Mr. Aitcheson broke any laws while at King’s with the administration’s knowledge; he was convicted and served time for crimes committed before he applied for admission to King’s.”
Both Arlington and Reno diocese have the extensive records of Aitcheson’s Klan and criminal history, several church sources contended.
“Even in the 1970’s and 1980’s every diocese did a full psychological battery for candidates for the priesthood. There is a clear psychological screening and a formal report that is kept in the priest’s file in every diocese,” said Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and widely published expert on church sexual abuse issues. “You have to wonder about his conversion. If someone came to me with a history of making pipe bombs, this would be a pathology so extreme any savvy psychologist would say this is a long-term problem not solved in a few years,” Rossetti said in October interviews. “It would take decades because the pathology is so deep and powerful. That kind of history is not sustainable to become a priest a few years after you made bombs for the Ku Klux Klan.”
“Given his current interests in the confederacy, any psychologist would be concerned about this given his past,” Rossetti added.
All priests are given a psychological “evaluation before being accepted into the seminary and priesthood. An important question is: was that psychologist aware his previous involvement with the Ku Klux Klan? Was he aware that he had recently been committed to a psych ward?” asked Rossetti, who used to be head of St. Luke’s, a prominent church affiliated treatment center for priests with psychological disorders. “Did the Reno and Arlington dioceses’ understand the depths of this man’s pathology? This sort of pathology doesn’t just go away.”
After the diocese of Arlington orchestrated a pre-emptive public relations release of Aitcheson’s KKK past by publishing his article in the church bulletin on August 21st, they were forced to respond to a tsunami of media attention that found gaps in their official diocese narrative.
The diocese later released a statement admitting that they only released Aitcheson’s history with the KKK when they received information that it was about to be made public. “Fr. Aitcheson was approached about this, he acknowledged his past and saw the opportunity to tell his story in the hopes that others would see the possibility of conversion and repentance, especially given the context of what occurred in Charlottesville. The Diocese agreed to publish his account.”
Diocese of Arlington officials later admitted 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 the mid-2000’s “all staff and clergy have had in-depth background checks” using the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and fingerprint databases, according to diocese spokesman Billy Atwell.
It wasn’t clear if his criminal record would have made Aitcheson ineligible to become a priest in Nevada or Virginia
“The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God,” Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said August 23.