WASHINGTON, D.C. — An African-American family that suffered a cross-burning 40 years ago in Maryland has more questions than answers after discovering that man responsible has been a Catholic priest in Nevada and Virginia.
Phillip and Barbara Butler said Father William Aitcheson should identify his Klan associates along with anyone else who helped him burn crosses decades ago.
Aitcheson is taking a leave of absence from the Diocese of Arlington after describing his Klan membership and apologizing for his actions as a young man. He said his past was not a secret, but he felt compelled to make it more public after seeing violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
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“My actions were despicable. 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,” Aitcheson wrote in The Arlington Catholic Herald.
The Butlers’ lawyer, Ted Williams, said he believes Aitcheson came forward only because he was going to be exposed.
Aitcheson was ordained as a priest in 1988 by the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, and has been assigned to the Arlington Diocese since 1993, most recently serving as parochial vicar — an assistant pastor — at St. Leo the Great in Fairfax.
In the article in the diocesan newspaper, Aitcheson wrote that his membership in the Klan is public information, but rarely comes up.
Indeed, Aitcheson was convicted on criminal charges in 1977 after the cross-burnings, and years later President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy visited the Butler family.
Articles from the Associated Press archives show that Aitcheson was arrested in 1977, when, as a student at the University of Maryland, authorities identified him as the “wizard” of a 12-member KKK lodge.
He was charged in state and federal court with multiple cross-burnings, and a threat to kill Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. He was convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail.
Five years later, a judge ordered Aitcheson to pay $23,000 in damages to the Butlers, who were victimized by one of Aitcheson’s cross-burnings after they moved into a mostly white neighborhood in College Park, Maryland.
That prompted the visit from Reagan, who sought to reassure the Butlers that the racist attack was not representative of most Americans’ views.
Diocese spokesman Billy Atwell said Tuesday the diocese knew about Aitcheson’s past with the Klan when he arrived in 1993, but “just learned this weekend about the civil suit from 40 years ago and will be working with Father Aitcheson to ensure he meets all of his legal and moral obligations to make restitution.”
Virginia has been dealing with the aftermath of a white supremacist rally – featuring neo-Nazis, KKK members, and adherents of the alt-right movement – in Charlottesville on August 11-12 protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. One person was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of counter-demonstrators.
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Charlottesville, which is the home of the University of Virginia, is 85 miles southwest of Fairfax.
In his article, Aitcheson 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 staff contributed to this report.