US Catholic priest apologises for burning KKK cross in garden of black couple
A Catholic priest and former Ku Klux Klan member has apologised to a black couple for erecting a burning cross in their front garden during a campaign of abuse more than 40 years ago.
Father William Aitcheson wrote a handwritten letter to Philip and Barbara Butler saying he “sincerely regrets the suffering he caused” when he burned a cross in front of the heir home in College Park, Maryland in January 1977.
The priest, who was 23-years-old at the time, was arrested and charged for multiple cross burnings and sentenced to 90 days in jail for criminal misdemeanor.
In addition to the letter, which was dated 8 September but recently obtained by local news channel WUSA, Fr Aitcheson sent two cheques worth $23,000 (£17,000). He also agreed to send them a further $9,600 (£7,000) to cover their legal fees.
The money is what the family were expected to receive after they filed a lawsuit over the incident in the 1970s. Rev Aitcheson did not pay the money at the time.
He wrote: “You became my target at the time because I did not believe that people of different races should live together. I was blinded by hate and ignorance. … I believe now that all people can live together in peace regardless of race.”
He wrote: “The images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget.”
He described his actions as “despicable” and reflecting on that time he added that it was “hard to believe that was me”.
“We must condemn, at every opportunity, the hatred and vile beliefs of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations. What they believe directly contradicts what we believe as Americans and what we, as Catholics, hold dear”, he added.
But in a statement the Catholic Diocese of Arlington acknowledged that he had decided to speak out when they were contacted by a freelance reporter who had found his legal name matched that of a man arrested in the 1970s.
It said: “A freelancer reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner, contacted the Diocese and stated that she learned that Fr Aitcheson’s legal name matched that of a man arrested in the 1970s.
“Fr 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 Diocese agreed to publish his account.
“The Butler family asked for the disclosure of names of any others who cooperated in the cross burning at their home. Fr. Aitcheson agrees to fully cooperate with law enforcement addressing details of this case that were not gathered previously.”
Fr Aitcheson announced he was temporarily stepping down from his role as a parochial vicar at a church in Fairfax City “for the well-being of the church and parish community”.
But for the Butlers an apology is not enough.
The couple, who are now in their 70s, are reportedly still in pursuit of a further $68,000 (£50,000) of interest on the original $23,000 which was not paid in 1977.
Their solicitor Ted Williams told NBC Newsthat they were also planning a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church as they allege it knew about Fr Aitcheson’s past and should have reported it.
They also say that allowing him to write his opinion piece on a public platform caused them more harm.
The couple were newlyweds at the time of the incident and Mr Butler had just returned from serving in the Vietnam War.