The Catholic priest who publicly admitted to burning crosses as a member of the Ku Klux Klan decades ago spoke out after a freelance journalist told church officials about his disturbing past, according to a statement from the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.
“He came forward only after he was going to be exposed,” said Ted Williams, an attorney for the priest’s cross-burning victims.
The Rev. William Aitcheson, a priest in Virginia, admitted in an op-ed in the Arlington Catholic Herald on Monday that he was a KKK member 40 years ago.
“My actions were despicable,” he wrote. “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, 62, joined the Diocese of Arlington in 1998, years after leaving the Klan. In his article, he apologized and connected his “despicable” past actions to the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month.
“(A)bandoning thoughts of racism and superiority gave me the liberation I needed,” he wrote. “We must condemn, at every opportunity, the hatred and vile beliefs of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations.”
The Diocese of Arlington said Aitcheson’s article “was written with the intention of telling his story of transformation.” Aitcheson voluntarily asked to step away from the ministry temporarily, the church said.
The church later wrote that Aitcheson wrote the article after a freelance reporter contacted the diocese with information that his legal name matched that of a man arrested in the 1970s.
“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,” the church wrote.
Former victims speak up
For Philip and Barbara Butler, Aitcheson’s story brings up brutal personal memories. In 1977, they discovered a flaming cross about 6-feet high on their yard, they said in a news conference on Wednesday.
Aitcheson, then a University of Maryland student, was arrested in the cross burning and identified as an “exalted cyclops” of a KKK lodge, according to a 1977 article in The Washington Post.
In all, he was charged with six cross burnings, one count of making bomb threats, and two of manufacturing pipe bombs, the Post reported at the time.
He was sentenced to 60 days in jail with four years of probation, according to WJLA.
Williams, the attorney for the Butler family, called on Aitcheson to identify those who helped with the cross burnings.
“He needs to give up other klansmen or klanswomen who (were) involved in putting that cross on the Butlers’ property,” Williams said, according to WJLA.
The Butler family also won $23,000 in damages from Aitcheson, but they were never paid, according to WJLA. In a statement, the Diocese of Arlington encouraged Aitcheson to “fulfill his legal and moral obligations” to the Butler family.
“We are coordinating with Father Aitcheson in his efforts to seek reconciliation and make restitution,” the statement said. “Father Aitcheson fully understands this is his obligation and that he must do what is possible to make this situation right.”
After the cross burning, President Ronald Reagan visited the Butler family in 1982.
The Butlers said they did not know Aitcheson was a priest until Tuesday, according to WJLA.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Barbara Butler said, quoting the Bible.
“But you did know what you did,” she added.