A Catholic priest who confessed to burning crosses and committing other racist acts as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s did so after a journalist contacted church officials about his history, according to a statement released by the Diocese of Arlington late Wednesday.
The freelance reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner, contacted the diocese and stated that she learned that the Rev. William Aitcheson’s “legal name matched that of a man arrested in the 1970s,” the statement read. “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.”
In a remarkable essay titled “Moving From Hate to Love With God’s Grace,” published by the diocese in the Arlington Catholic Herald, Aitcheson, 62, confessed he had been a leader of a KKK lodge in Maryland in his early 20s as a student at the University of Maryland until he left the group and rejoined the church, later becoming a priest. He was charged with making bomb threats, manufacturing pipe bombs and threatening to kill Coretta Scott King in a letter.
Aitcheson’s crimes included the burning of a cross in the front yard of a black couple’s home in Prince George’s County in 1977.
During a news conference Wednesday in Washington, Barbara and Phillip Butler said they never received closure after the cross burning on their front lawn — a home they had lived in for six months as newlyweds. While the Butlers have never forgotten that day, they said they had only become aware in recent days that the man who pleaded guilty in the cross-burning incident had become a priest — and lived nearby, in Virginia.
They said Aitcheson never apologized to them or paid a court-ordered restitution.
Phillip Butler said he read Aitcheson’s essay to mean that Aitcheson had repented through the church for his past sins, even though he never made amends to them directly.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Barbara Butler said, quoting Jesus in Luke 23:34. She continued to speak as if to Aitcheson, “but you did know what you did . . . you changed our lives a lot.”
Phillip Butler said he would need a sincere effort from Aitcheson to reach out and apologize before getting closure, but Barbara Butler shook her head.
“It was a lot of trauma. It really, really was,” she said. “I will never, ever forget. We didn’t deserve this. No one deserved this.”
The Butlers said that Aitcheson skipping out on paying his restitution of about $20,000 wasn’t what bothered them most. Even if he were to pay, the couple will never forget the horror of that night.
“It’s been 40 years, and it came back again,” Phillip Butler said of the priest’s essay being published.
Officials at the diocese had said earlier that when Aitcheson came to the diocese more than 24 years ago, they had “learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart.”
In its statement, the diocese said it is “encouraging Fr. Aitcheson to fulfill his legal and moral obligations to the Butler family.” The priest also agreed to fully cooperate with law enforcement to address unresolved details of the case, it said.
“Fr. Aitcheson fully acknowledges that the Butler family deserved and deserves an apology,” the statement read. “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.”
As part of that case, Aitcheson had also been ordered to pay two Jewish groups — the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Maryland and the Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville — $1,500 each for burning crosses at their properties in 1976. It also wasn’t immediately clear if Aitcheson had paid the two Jewish groups.
Aitcheson also was barred by a judge from any further acts of intimidation or terrorism against the Butlers or any African Americans or Jews in the D.C. metro area.
Ted Williams, the attorney for the Butlers, said the diocese’s statement late Wednesday casts doubt on Aitcheson’s sincerity in penning the essay. Aitcheson wrote that images from this month’s violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville “brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget.”
“He was going to be exposed, and that is his rationale for coming out,” Williams said, referring to the timing of the statement, “not because he had some epiphany or he had some ‘Amazing Grace’ moment.”
As a 23-year-old University of Maryland student, Aitcheson was charged with six cross burnings in Prince George’s County, one count of making bomb threats and two of manufacturing pipe bombs, according to a March 1977 article in The Washington Post.
In 1977, Aitcheson told a Baltimore judge he was “very sorry to have caused this trouble” and “I’m confident it won’t happen again,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
It is not clear how many people at Aitcheson’s current or past parishes knew about his past with the KKK, but officials said there have been no accusations of racism against Aitcheson while at the diocese.
“My actions were despicable,” Aitcheson wrote in the easy published Monday. “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.”
“Every time we hit the corner, we wonder, ‘Is the house still going to be there?’ ” Phillip Butler, then 40, told The Post. “What’s next? Is something going to come through the window? You don’t know. To me, it’s going to be like that forever. No one can take this away from us now. We are always going to be coming around that corner.”
The 1982 article describes them as “private people who are uncomfortable with the attention,” and Barbara Butler told The Post on Tuesday, “we’re just trying to get ourselves together.”
As Phillip Butler remembers Jan. 30, 1977, he was watching “Roots” on television when a neighbor called to say a cross was burning on their front lawn. He recalled thinking “someone is against us.” By the time he took down the cross, which he said was about six or seven feet tall, and called police, the flames were out, he said.
“I can’t say that I was mad or I was afraid, all of it was involved,” he said. “We need to find out what, why this was done.”
The couple said Aitcheson never showed remorse, adding that they only found out he was a priest in recent days.
As Barbara Butler spoke Wednesday, she pivoted between talking about what happened to the couple 40 years ago and directing her statements to Aitcheson.
“I had never seen a cross; you see this on television . . . but to really have one in your yard, is that much hatred in your heart that you would do something like that?” she said. “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, so why are you doing this?”
The Butlers were one of the first black families to move to College Park Woods, a subdivision in Prince George’s County, when the incident occurred. They had started to fear for their safety.
“We looked out our windows all the time . . . every little sound,” Phillip Butler said Wednesday. “We did not ever know whatever was going to happen again . . . just didn’t know.”
Five years after the cross-burning incident, Barbara Butler remembers President Ronald Reagan visiting the couple and saying “this should not happen in America.”