A priest who had served as a grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan 40 years ago is “a tragic story that has had a noble end,” according to the new head of an ad hoc committee set up by the U.S. bishops’ conference to work against racism.
“It was tragic that this man was involved in the KKK, and that his behavior was of such a degree that he ended up in trouble with the authorities about it. What is hopeful and noble is the fact that he realized he was going down the wrong path,” said Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown during a press conference announcing the new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Father William Aitcheson, a 62-year-old priest in the city of Fairfax, admitted in The Arlington Catholic Herald on Monday that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan forty years earlier, calling his own actions “despicable.”
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“He realized that he was not pursuing what the gospel of Jesus Christ had invited him and called him to pursue and he made changes in his life,” Murry said. “I think that that is a very hopeful sign for all of us. We are not stuck in the past.”
Meanwhile, a couple terrorized by the priest say they will only meet with him unless he names his accomplices, saying he did not put a burning cross in their lawn by himself.
They also said Aitcheson has never apologized to them, or paid a court-ordered restitution of $23,000.
Barbara and Phillip Butler – both now in their 70s – had only lived in their Prince George’s County, Maryland, home for 6 months when the cross burning happened in 1977.
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“I’d never seen a cross,” Barbara Butler said at a press conference on Wednesday. “You see something like that on television or something like that, but to really have one in your yard. Is there that much hatred in your heart?”
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy visited the Butlers, who told them the racist attack was not representative of most Americans’ views.
A statement from the Diocese of Arlington said they have contacted the couple’s attorney to arrange a meeting between the Butlers and Aitcheson, accompanied by Bishop Michael Burbidge. The statement said the diocese wanted the encounter to take place in a “pastoral, private setting, with the Butler family, in the hope that it may bring them healing.”
The attorney, Ted Williams, told reporters, “While the Butlers are willing to forgive, they are not willing to forget how the actions of Father Aitcheson affected their lives.”
Williams said the priest needs to “come clean,” and identify the names of any other Klansmen or Klanswomen involved in putting the burning cross on the Butler’s property.
The Arlington diocese said it is encouraging Aitcheson to fulfill his legal and moral obligations to the Butler family, including disclosing the names of any other people who cooperated in the cross burning.
The statement said Aitcheson agrees to fully cooperate with law enforcement addressing details of this case that were not gathered previously.
“We are coordinating with Father Aitcheson in his efforts to seek reconciliation and make restitution. Father Aitcheson fully understands this is his obligation, and that he must do what is possible to make this situation right,” the diocesan statement said.
The Butlers said it would be hard to forgive the priest for what happened that night 40 years ago.
“Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they do, but you did know what you did. And for that, I have to give it a lot of serious thought, because you changed our lives a lot,” Barbara Butler said.
Williams also questioned the account given by Aitcheson in his original article, where the priest stated he was telling his story after the recent racist violence in Charlottesville, which is less than 100 miles away from Fairfax.
A freelance reporter had contacted the diocese about the priest’s past.
Williams said he feared exposure, which prompted the essay.
The diocese said when Aitcheson was approached, “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.”
Aitcheson was ordained as a priest in 1988 by the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas.
The Diocese of Reno (the diocese was split into two in 1995) released a statement stating Aitcheson admitted his past involvement with the KKK and talked about his conversion experience before entering seminary.
“Those persons in charge at the time, acknowledging that conversion, accepted him into the seminary,” the statement said, although the diocese said it was unaware of the civil judgement (according to press reports at the time, when the judgement was given, the court had listed Aitcheson’s whereabouts as “unknown.”)
While serving at Little Flower Catholic Church in Reno in 1992, Aitcheson was cited by police for trespassing during a protest in front of an abortion clinic, and ordered to appear before the Reno Municipal Court.
“I was definitely cited wrongly,” the priest told the Reno Gazette-Journal at the time. “I was exercising my First Amendment right to speech, I was carrying a sign and I was saying my rosary out loud … I didn’t even step on the property.”
He moved to the Diocese of Arlington – where he was born – the following year.
“While 40 years have passed, I must say this: I’m sorry. To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me,” Aitcheson wrote in his editorial.
He called for the condemnation of “the hatred and vile beliefs of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations,” adding that what they believe contradicts everything Catholics hold dear.
Crux national correspondent Christopher White contributed to this report.