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WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.”

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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10 thoughts on “Cross Burning Victims Wonder Why Priest Is Confessing Now

  1. Along your thinking, L, he may be sick. It’s appointed once to die and then the judgment. Maybe he is on his way out of here and trying to “get it right” before he does because after that, he will be in the judgment. Also, it’s a judgment against him. Even if that particular state has a statute of limitations on judgments awarded, the Butlers can petition the court to reinstate it.

  2. Now that we have Trump in office, he feels comfortable in coming out. He thinks he will be protected. Look at all the crazies that are coming out from the” pecker woods”.

  3. OMG if the Catholic Priests aren’t busy molesting children, then they are busy burning crosses
    on people of color’s lawns!!!!!!!!

    Whoever this POS is he must be near death and is attempting to confess his SINS now
    before his ass burns in HELL.

    The fact that the archdiocese kept this incident hidden makes it even worse.

    I hope this couple obtains an attorney and sues the diocese and the Priest whoever he
    is. Hopefully, the statute of limitations has not run out and they can seek restitution
    for this act of UGLINESS!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. specialt757 on said:

    I agree with the Butlers, why now? Did he fear being exposed? I do believe can have a change of heart, and according to him, his past was no secret, then why bring it up again. Now pay the restitution plus interest if you really feel bad. And right Duwarn, if the diocese knew of this and didn’t “encourage” him to pay his debt, then they share the blame as well.

  5. I would sue the priest for no fulfilling his court order for the judgment in the amount double the interest, so lets say about $100,000. I also would sue the diocese for bringing him to the parish in the victims area and allowing him to be a priest. I would even go as far as to maybe he needs to spend time in jail, lest say 5 years for the crime of not paying for the crime committed 40 years ago.

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