Just when you thought things couldn't get any more exciting in the aftermath of the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., where a protester was mowed down and killed by a white-supremacist, there comes a story that I can't imagine anyone anticipated.
An active, currently serving Roman Catholic priest admitted he had been a leader in the Ku Klux Klan and burned crosses on people's lawns, before entering the priesthood. The priest, Father William Aitcheson, has now taken a leave of absence from his role as an associate pastor at a parish in the Arlington, Va., archdiocese.
While it didn't make front page news in The Washington Post -- of which more here shortly -- it was the lead item on the local NBC-TV station, WRC. Their story, buttressed by an online version, was a very basic account:
A Virginia priest took a leave of absence on Monday after he admitted that he was previously a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Father William Aitcheson, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, burned a cross on an African-American couple's lawn in College Park, Maryland, in the 1970s.
Aitcheson, 62, wrote about his past Klan affiliation Monday in The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese's newspaper. He currently is an associate pastor at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax, Virginia.
The WRC-TV story offers an intriguing insight into the genesis of this disclosure, but then tapers off:
Aitcheson wrote in the essay that images from violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired him to speak out. But a reporter's inquiry may have played a role.
The diocese said in a statement issued Wednesday that a "freelance reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner" contacted the diocese and said she knew that Aitcheson's name matched that of the man convicted of cross-burnings.
"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 statement says.
I'd sure love to know who that parishioner is, and for whom they write. It's something the TV station apparently didn't get around to asking.
What we don't hear in the WRC-TV story is what we did get via The Washington Post and that is context, and later some framing of what Aitcheson's disclosure could mean for his future ministry:
Billy Atwell, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, said the diocese had received information about Aitcheson's history when he was accepted for ministry under Bishop John Keating. He didn't provide details on what information was known.
Aitcheson attended seminary at the North American College in Rome from 1984 to 1988, according to the diocese.
Atwell said he didn't know if a criminal-background check was conducted when Aitcheson came to the Arlington diocese in 1993, although he said more in-depth background reviews have been done routinely on staff and priests since the mid-2000s.
Since the mid-2000's "all staff and clergy have had in-depth background checks" under policies of the Virginia State Police, according to Atwell. The checks are also done using a national criminal check system of the FBI and fingerprinting tracking databases. It wasn't clear if his criminal record would have eliminated his ability to become a priest, either in Nevada or Virginia.
That answers one question many people may have had: Just how did this guy get approved for the priesthood? Obviously, sinners can repent and change their ways. Right?
The Post also asked -- and got one answer -- to another question: Can Aitcheson's experience be used within the church? And, they got a great Catholic thinker, Matthew Franck, a Princeton University lecturer and legal scholar, to comment.
"I hope this evidently good man returns to active ministry," Franck tweeted. "He could do important work, especially with his history. ..."
In a phone interview, Franck said, "Sometimes people get involved in a hate group and then have been reborn, and have an interesting story to tell. ... It would be a loss for him to just vanish."
There is, you see, a way to do journalism that goes beyond mere titillation and approach the subject of redemption. The Washington Post did this, and even though WRC-TV could have done so, the television station instead went for the sizzle and not the steak.
In other words, might there be a crucial RELIGIOUS angle to this story about a priest? Maybe?