Cross-burning Victims Want Priest to Out Other Klan Members

WASHINGTON — An African-American family that was targeted by a cross-burning 40 years ago in College Park, Maryland, spoke out Wednesday, after learning that the Ku Klux Klan member responsible is now a Catholic priest in Fairfax, Virginia.

Rev. William Aitcheson, 62, apologized in a newspaper column this week and asked for forgiveness for what he called his “despicable” actions as a Klan member 40 years ago.

He was convicted on criminal charges for his role in several cross-burnings in 1977, and for threatening to kill Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King.

Aitcheson was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

At a news conference Wednesday, Phillip and Barbara Butler described the day in 1977 when they found a 6- or 7-foot-tall cross on the front lawn of their home on Drake Place in College Park.

“This was the last day of the movie ‘Roots’ … I always remembered that,” Phillip Butler said.

“I had never seen a cross [burning],” said Barbara Butler. “You see this on television or something like that, but to really have one, you know, in your yard — is that much hatred in your heart, that you would do something like … I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. So why are you doing this?”

“I have to give that a lot of serious, serious thought, because you changed our lives a lot,” Barbara Butler said of Aitcheson’s request for forgiveness. “I mean, we had just bought a house, just got married, and all of a sudden this happens.”

In a statement, the Catholic Diocese of Arlington said Aitcheson and Bishop Michael Burbidge have offered to meet privately with the Butlers “in the hope that it may bring them healing.”

But the Butlers’ attorney, Ted Williams, said his clients are not interested in meeting unless Aitcheson gives up the names of other Klan members who took part in cross burnings.

After Aitcheson’s column was published, the diocese announced that he was voluntarily taking a leave of absence.

In his column, the priest said his past was not secret, but he felt compelled to talk about it following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

But Williams said he believes Aitcheson came forward only because he was going to be exposed.

The couple is still owed $23,000 in civil damages from the burning, and the diocese of Arlington says it is working with Aitcheson to make restitution.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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