An Arlington priest who was formerly a KKK member has written an apology letter and paid restitution to a family for burning a cross in their lawn in 1977.
Fr. William Aitcheson, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and was arrested in 1977 for burning six crosses, one on the lawn of Philip and Barbara Butler. He was 23 years old at the time.
In a handwritten letter to the Butlers released on Friday, Aitcheson apologized for his “despicable act” and for the pain that it caused. “I also know that the symbol of the most enduring love the world has ever known must never be used as a weapon of terror,” he wrote.
Besides the letter, the priest also sent the Butlers a check for $23,000, the original restitution owed them in 1977, and offered to pay their legal fees of $9,600.
While the family originally refused to accept Aitcheson’s apology and money, the diocese said in a press release that the Butlers “have since reconsidered and accepted” the restitution and money for legal fees, which were paid from Aicheson’s personal funds and a private loan.
The diocese also stated that “Fr. Aitcheson had no legal obligation to make restitution, and it should be clarified that he had no obligation under Church law either. Fr. Aitcheson felt a moral obligation to pay as much as he could. The Diocese supported this decision.”
“Fr. Aitcheson acknowledges that he should have reached out to the Butler family and paid restitution decades ago, but he hopes this resolution begins a process of healing and peace,” the diocese added.
In August, Aitcheson’s past as a KKK member was made public when he wrote an article in the diocesan newspaper “with the intention of telling his story of transformation” from being a Klan member to abandoning his racist beliefs and becoming a Catholic priest.
The article, entitled “Moving from hate to love with God’s grace,” was written in the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. on Aug. 11-12, which drew national attention. According to the diocese, a freelancer reporter contacted the diocese at that time after she found that Fr. Aitcheson’s name matched that of a man arrested in the 1970s. Fr. Aitcheson saw it as a chance to share his story of conversion, and the diocese agreed to publish his account.
“He left that life behind him 40 years ago and since journeyed in faith to eventually become a Catholic priest,” the diocese said in a statement in August.
The Butlers’ lawyer has told local media that the family is still pursuing a civil suit against the law firm that originally represented them at the time of the incident and failed to renew the judgment on the case, allowing it to expire. The family is seeking to collect the interest accrued on the original $23,000, which would now be more than $68,000.
The family is also looking into a civil suit against the diocese, which they believe should have come forward about Aitcheson’s past, and alleging harm caused by an apology letter published by the priest.
The diocese has said that they were aware of Aitcheson’s past KKK involvement but were not made aware of the civil suit until August.
Fr. Aitcheson entered the seminary and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, Nev. in 1988. He came to the Arlington Diocese in 1993. The Arlington Diocese stated in August that “there have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Fr. Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington.”
Fr. Aitcheson has been on a voluntary leave of absence since August. According to the diocese, “plans for (Aitcheson’s) future priestly ministry are still being discerned.”