Virginia diocese says it learned of priest’s KKK past decades ago

Father William Aitcheson said that 40 years have passed since he was in the Ku Klux Klan (ARLINGTON DIOCESE / WUSA-TV)

FAIRFAX, Va. (CBS News) — A priest in Virginia made a very public and shocking confession this week about his earlier life as a cross-burning member of the Ku Klux Klan.

William Aitcheson, 62, made a confession in an essay published Monday, writing, “My actions were despicable … while 40 years have passed, I must say this: ‘I’m sorry.'”

He wrote that “images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget.”

CBS News’ Errol Barnett reports a spokesman for the Arlington diocese said Thursday: “At the time he began ministry here in 1993, the diocese learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart.”

The spokesman also said Aitcheson’s “past was not common knowledge to current staff 24 years later.”

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Philip and Barbara Butler have been reluctantly recalling the night they were terrorized by the KKK as newlyweds.

“It’s 40 years and it came back again,” Barbara told CBS News.

This week, they discovered Aitcheson was responsible for burning a 7-foot cross in their front yard has been a practicing Catholic priest, an hour’s drive away.

Church officials say Aitcheson’s statement this week came after a reporter began asking questions and that’s when “he acknowledged his past and saw the opportunity to tell his story.”

After his arrest decades ago, Aitcheson’s racist offenses became front page news partly because he had threatened the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, Corretta Scott-King, and because President Reagan visited two of his victims — the Butlers.

“There shouldn’t be any place in our country for that sort of thing,” President Reagan said in 1982.

“I will never, ever forget. We didn’t deserve this. No one deserves this,” Barbara said.

The church has accepted his offer to “temporarily” step away from the “public ministry” and says he would like to meet with the Butler family privately.

They say that won’t happen until he reveals who helped him burn the cross on their lawn.

A federal judge ordered Aitcheson to pay the family $23,000 in damages in the early 1980s — but they say he never did.

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington says arrangements are being made to ensure he fulfills his legal and moral obligations to the Butler family.

© 2017 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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