A priest has stepped aside after admitting that he was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Writing in the Arlington Catholic Herald, Fr William Aitcheson, 62, asked forgiveness for his actions as a young man.

“It’s public information but it rarely comes up,” he wrote. “My actions were despicable. When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else. It’s hard to believe that was me.”

The Diocese of Arlington said it had approved his request to “temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well-being of the Church and parish community”.

Later reports suggested a reporter had recently contacted the diocese about Fr Aitcheson’s past. In 1977 he was jailed for 90 days after helping to install a burning cross on a black family’s lawn. He had also sent a death threat to Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King.

“As a young adult I was Catholic, but in no way practising my faith. 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,” he said.

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