WASHINGTON – Phillip and Barbara Butler hadn't given much thought to the man who burned a cross on their front lawn 40 years ago.
For the Diocesan statement regarding father William Aitcheson: https://www.arlin...
Then they heard the startling news Tuesday that the perpetrator had become a priest and was ministering to Catholics not far from their home.
"I didn't know what to say. It was unbelievable," Phillip Butler said Wednesday at a news conference.
The priest, the Rev. William Aitcheson, went public with his former Ku Klux Klan affiliation on Monday, writing a column in the diocesan newspaper.
He said his past was not a secret but that he felt compelled to make it more public after seeing images of violence at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12.
Aitcheson, now 62, described his past actions as despicable: "To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me."
For the Butlers, though, his announcement provided more questions than answers.
The Butlers' lawyer, Ted Williams, called on Aitcheson to publicly identify his Klan associates as well as anyone who helped him with the cross burning.
The Butlers said the cross was big and heavy, more than 6 feet tall, so Aitcheson must have had help. Phillip Butler said someone also must have identified their home for Aitcheson to target them.
"What did we do to have them put a cross in our lawn?" he asked. The couple, among the first African-Americans to move into their subdivision, moved out after about eight years.
"It makes you very afraid of what's going on," Butler said.
The Diocese of Arlington initially said that for the good of the parish, Aitcheson is taking a voluntary leave of absence from ministerial duties at St. Leo the Great in Fairfax. Through the diocese, he has declined interview requests.
In response to the Butlers' news conference, the diocese released a statement saying Aitcheson "will fully cooperate with law enforcement in addressing details of this case that were not gathered previously."
Williams said he believes Aitcheson, who became a priest in Nevada before eventually transferring to Virginia, came forward only because he felt he was going to be exposed.
He questioned Aitcheson's statement that the Charlottesville rally prompted his public mea culpa, after so many other racial flashpoints over the decades.
"The big question is: Why is this just coming out now?" he asked.
The diocese, in its statement Wednesday, said a freelance reporter had approached the diocese asking whether Aitcheson had been connected to the cross burnings, which received press attention at the time.
"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," the diocese said.
Aitcheson was convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail in 1977 after he was charged with burning several crosses, including the one at the Butlers' home in College Park, Md., and sending a death threat to Coretta Scott King. Authorities at the time said he was a University of Maryland student doubling as a "wizard" of a 12-member KKK lodge.
Years later, the Butlers won a $23,000 civil judgment against Aitcheson and received a personal visit from President Ronald Reagan, who with his wife, Nancy, condemned the hate crime.
But Aitcheson never apologized to the Butlers, in writing or in person during their time in court, and they said they never received any of that money.
The diocese said it only learned of his unpaid restitution this week. The diocese is committed to ensuring he fulfills his moral and legal obligations, it said.
Williams said he is researching his options in pushing the judgment and calculating possible interest in 35 years of nonpayment.
Barbara Butler said she doubts Aitcheson could say anything she would be interested in hearing in terms of an apology, and she expressed skepticism about his change of heart.
"Father forgive them for they know not what they do," she said, quoting Jesus Christ. Then she addressed the priest: "But you did know."
Diocesan Note: Father William Aitcheson’s article was written with the intention of telling his story of transformation. He voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well being of the Church and parish community, and the request was approved.
Diocesan statement on Butler family press conference
Editor’s note: This statement was pulled from the Catholic Diocese of Arlington’s press release
Fr. Aitcheson fully acknowledges that the Butler family deserved and deserves an apology. Fr. Aitcheson is open to meeting with the Butlers privately, to address some of their rightly-held concerns and questions. Bishop Burbidge has offered to be present for that meeting. In the press conference, Mr. Butler said that he and his wife want closure. Our hope is that we can assist them in finding that closure.
The Diocese is encouraging Fr. Aitcheson to fulfill his legal and moral obligations to the Butler family.
The Butler family asked for the disclosure of names of any others who cooperated in the cross burning at their home. Fr. Aitcheson agrees to fully cooperate with law enforcement addressing details of this case that were not gathered previously.
A freelancer reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner, contacted the Diocese and stated that she learned that Fr. Aitcheson’s legal name matched that of a man arrested in the 1970s. 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.