WASHINGTON — Phillip and Barbara Butler hadn’t given much thought to the man who burned a cross on their front lawn 40 years ago.
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 old Ku Klux Klan affiliation Monday, writing a column in the diocesan newspaper.
He said his past was not a secret, but he felt compelled to make it more public after seeing images of violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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 six feet tall (1.8-meters), so he 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 on 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 flash points 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, Maryland, and sending a death threat to Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. 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 the money.
The diocese said it only learned of his unpaid restitution this week, and committed to ensuring he fulfills his moral and legal obligations.
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 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.”