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Like Saul of Tarsus, we must welcome a true conversion

By Caroline Farrow

One of the saddest stories this week is that of Father William Aitcheson, who until the beginning of last week was a parish priest in the diocese of Arlington in the USA but has now stepped back from active ministry after it was revealed that 40 years ago – when he was a young impressionable university student – he was a member of the notorious racist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Father Aitcheson made his confession in an essay published in his local diocesan newspaper, the Arlington Catholic Herald in which he discussed his involvement in the KKK, describing his actions as despicable.

Lest readers be in any doubt, Father Aitcheson’s actions went far beyond any sort of foolish passive youthful support of this group, which would in itself be bad enough; he ended up being charged with several cross burnings, making bomb threats, manufacturing pipe bombs and writing a threatening letter to Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights activist Martin Luther King.

Father Aitcheson was sentenced to 60 days in prison, followed by four years of probation, and a judge ordered him to undergo a programme of psychiatric or psychological treatment. It obviously worked, because in his essay, this priest says that when he looks back on his past, it feels as though he is speaking about somebody else.

He writes: ‘It’s hard to believe that was me. The irony that I left an anti-Catholic hate group to rejoin the Catholic Church is not lost on me. It is a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy’.

Since the essay was published, it has transpired that Father Aitcheson’s confession and apology may not have been motivated by a desire to tell his story of transformation following the terrible events of Charlottesville, as was initially indicated by the newspaper, but because he was about to be outed by a local journalist posing as a parishioner who was threatening to reveal his past. This has now led to many questioning his sincerity. Having been in a similar position, my heart goes out to this priest. I was forced to go public about having had an abortion following a online campaign against me by a small disparate group of people who are united in their loathing of me because I have a media platform.

At the same time as coping with severe morning sickness and then the loss of a baby, I was having to fend off rumours that I was somehow secretly pro-choice thanks to having had an abortion and that my very vocal support of the pro-life cause was nothing more than a front for some sort of false flag operation.

It was utterly crazy, one journalist who was about to publish an interview with me on the topic of abortion, faith and feminism, disclosed that she had received a number of emails imperiously demanding “what about Caroline’s abortion” and demanding that she pulled publication.

The interview was published and within five minutes of it appearing online, one of the women who has been pursuing me on and offline for a number of years, was the first to comment, writing that I was a hypocrite thanks to having had an abortion myself.

My only option was to tell my story on my own terms and while this was incredibly difficult to do, it actually bore much fruit in that my testimony has been able to help and inspire other people, as well as point to the great harm that abortion does to women.

Nonetheless, telling my story never gets any easier, humility is a difficult skill to master and nobody likes to have their darkest deeds laid bare for the public to pore over and judge, especially when it is not them to whom we must ultimately answer.

Like Father Aitcheson, when I look back on my life in my late teens and throughout my twenties, it seems as though I am talking about a different person and I behaved in a way, which would not now occur to me, much to the bemusement and disappointment of former friends.

The couple upon whose lawn William Aitchenson burnt a cross are now seeking the restitution of around $20,000 which he was ordered to pay them but apparently never did, and are also demanding that he name his accomplices as presumably the act of burning a cross would not have been carried out alone.

The diocese of Arlington has also said that they are encouraging Father Aitchenson to carry out his legal and moral obligations to the family and have offered to facilitate a meeting between the couple and the priest, with the local bishop being present to mediate.

It is absolutely right and proper that any unmet responsibilities are fulfilled (although it is not clear why the financial compensation was not paid at the time, could it be possible that this future priest was discharged from the obligation thanks to lack of funds or bankruptcy ?), but nonetheless it is disappointing to hear the couple’s lawyer cast doubt on the priest’s sincerity, saying that it wasn’t due to any epiphany or Amazing Grace moment but the threat of exposure.

The confession may have been forced, though I completely understand Father Aitcheson’s desire to get in there first and tell his own story on his own terms, but we should not discount a genuine conversion of heart. It is not as though this priest has kept his past hidden from the diocese, who have said that they were aware of it when he entered seminary.

Parishioners from the diocese of Arlington, where Fr Aticheson serves, have talked about him in glowing terms as being a good and holy priest, who preaches well, is extremely friendly and from whom there is absolutely no whiff of racism or anything else. They have expressed their hope that his voluntary absence from ministry is only a temporary one.

Those of us who have shameful events in our past will empathise with Father Aitcheson. That we may choose to keep certain things to ourselves does not signify a lack of remorse or any lingering attachment to unworthy thoughts, but that we have moved on and don’t wish to dwell on sins which have been confessed and forgiven.

What matters is how we live our lives today and in the future, not those things we have cast aside as being false. Father Aitcheson underwent formation at the seminary in Rome before spending over 20 years devoting his life to the priesthood, where it appears he was a great success.

It seems a great shame that this priest has felt compelled to step down, because surely at a time when racial tensions are heightened the witness of someone who has repented from their past involvement with the KKK is sorely needed, especially in a parish such as his, which is ethnically diverse. What we should be asking is why it is that this man lapsed from his faith, before returning in glory, and what it was that tempted him towards the KKK and this kind of vile ideology in the first place.

If Saul of Tarsus can be redeemed and turned into an apostle then so can everyone else. It is our unrepented sins which give scandal, not our forgiven ones. This is the radical truth of our faith, which we should not allow current political sensitivities to undermine.

The very essence of Christianity is one of metanoia, of turning around and changing our lives following a spiritual conversion and accepting that Christ’s victory on the cross means there is no sin which cannot be forgiven. Either we believe in forgiveness or redemption or we do not.

• Caroline Farrow is a Catholic journalist and broadcaster

Picture: The conversion of Saul of Tarsus. From a stained glass window in St Michael’s church, Lewes.

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