Once a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, a Roman Catholic priest from Virginia is finally apologizing to the Black couple he terrorized in a cross burning at their home in the 1970’s.
His apology may have come 40 years too late, however. In a handwritten letter sent to Philip and Barbara Butler on Sept. 8, Rev. William Aitcheson said he “sincerely regrets the suffering he caused” to the newlyweds when he burned cross on the front lawn of their College Park, Md. home in January 1977, according to NBC News. In the letter was attached two checks worth $23,000 – restitution the couple was supposed to receive in a lawsuit filed following the incident nearly four decades ago.
“I was blinded by hate and ignorance,” Aitcheson wrote. “I believe now that all people can live together in peace regardless of race. I also know that the symbol of the most enduring love the world has even known must never be used as a weapon of terror. Its use against you was a despicable act.”
Aitcheson’s apology came just a month after he took a temporary leave of absence from his priestly duties after confessing that he was an ex-member of the racist hate group, and had participated in several cross burnings. In an editorial published in the Arlington Daily Herald this summer, the priest said it was the racially charged protests in Charlottesville, Va., that reminded him of his “despicable” actions with the Klan.
Aitcheson wrote that he rejected the group’s beliefs before joining the priesthood in 1988, but was too ashamed to face the Butlers. The couple initially refused to open his letter and payment but were eventually willing to accept the checks, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington wrote in a statement Friday, Dec. 8. The couple has since asked for an additional $9,600 to help cover attorney’s fees.
Aitcheson wasn’t legally obligated to make restitution but “felt a moral obligation to pay as much as he could,” the diocese wrote, using private funds and a personal loan to help pay the couple. It stopped short of commenting on the priest’s future in the church, however.
“As this matter involving the Butler family and Fr. Aitcheson has only been resolved recently, plans for his future priestly ministry are still being discerned,” the church wrote.
Despite his apology, the Butlers said they are not sure they’re ready to forgive Aitcheson, who was sentenced to 90 days behind bars for the cross burning in 1977. The couple has questioned the sincerity of his confession, claiming that he wrote the editorial only after a freelance reporter who introduced herself as a parishioner approached the diocese about the priest’s racist past, The Washington Post reported.
“For you to say that you’re sorry? No, you’re not sorry,” Barbara Butler said. “You’re sorry that you got caught.”
Attorney for the couple Ted Williams said the Butlers plan to sue the church, accusing it of knowing about Aitcheson’s ties to the KKK and taking steps to obscure information about his past behavior. The church hasn’t yet commented on the allegations.