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Former KKK member who became a Catholic priest never apologized for cross-burning incident, victims say

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Two days after a Catholic priest penned a repentant essay saying he had been a violent member of the Ku Klux Klan, officials in his Virginia diocese on Wednesday suggested that he may not have paid court-ordered restitution decades ago to an African American couple on whose lawn he put a burning cross. The couple also said they’ve never received an apology.In a remarkable essay entitled “Moving From Hate to Love With God’s Grace,” the Rev. William Aitcheson, 62, confessed he had been a leader of a KKK lodge in Maryland in his early 20s until his life was transformed, and he became a priest. He was charged with making bomb threats, manufacturing pipe bombs and threatening to kill Coretta Scott King in a letter.

“God transforms all of us in mysterious ways,” the archdiocese wrote on its Facebook page Tuesday to a parishioner praising Aitcheson.

Father William Aitcheson (Arlington Catholic Herald)

But Wednesday morning, the diocese — which oversees northern and eastern Virginia — released a statement appearing to say the story was more complicated.

“The Diocese of Arlington learned this past weekend of civil damages awarded in 1982 in a case involving Fr. William Aitcheson. 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 statement read.

Also Wednesday, the couple who were victims of Aitcheson as young newlyweds held a news conference in Washington, saying he had never apologized to them and alleging his KKK past was about to come out before he penned the essay in the Arlington Catholic Herald.

Aitcheson had been ordered by a federal judge in the early 1980s to pay about $20,000 in damages in a civil lawsuit to Barbara and Phillip Butler after he burned a cross in the couple’s front yard in College Park, Md., in 1977. It wasn’t immediately clear from court records if he had ever paid it, although the Butlers and their lawyer said Wednesday it was never paid.

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As part of that case, Aitcheson had also been ordered to pay two Jewish groups — B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Maryland and the Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville — $1,500 each for burning crosses at their properties in 1976.

He was also barred by a judge from any further acts of intimidation or terror against the Butlers or any blacks or Jews in the D.C. metro area. It also wasn’t immediately clear if Aitcheson had paid the two Jewish groups.

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Priest steps down after revealing he was a Ku Klux Klan member decades ago
William Aitcheson stepped down after revealing that he was a Ku Klux Klan member in the 1970s. (WUSA9)

The statement Wednesday from Billy Atwell, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, indicated that Aitcheson and Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge want to meet in a “pastoral, private setting” with the Butlers “in the hope that it may bring them healing.” The diocese also said it has reached out to a lawyer who is representing the Butlers with their invitation.

Ted Williams, the couple’s current attorney, said the Butlers are asking that Aitcheson give up the names of other Klan members who assisted him in setting the cross on fire.

“Until that happens, the Butlers are not at this time interested in meeting with him,” Williams said.

The Butlers said Wednesday they still remember the image 40 years ago of the cross set afire on their front lawn when they were newlyweds in suburban Maryland.

Officials at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington said that when Aitcheson came to the diocese more than 24 years ago, they “learned of his past as well as his sincere conversion of heart.” It is not clear how many people at his current or past parishes knew about his past with the KKK, but officials said there have been no accusations of racism against Aitcheson while at the diocese.

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