The African-American couple who had a cross burned on their front lawn by a Ku Klux Klan leader who is now a Catholic priest in Virginia said the priest’s actions were "almost unforgivable" and refused to meet with him until he named other members of the hate group.
Father William Aitcheson, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, burned a cross in 1977 on the couple's lawn in College Park, Maryland, News4 reported.
Philip and Barbara Butler spoke out Tuesday and said that even though the priest was criminally convicted, he never apologized or paid them $23,000 in court-ordered restitution. The priest also never identified other KKK members, which Philip Butler urged him to do.
"He needed help to put that cross up," Philip Butler said.
So when the diocese invited the Butlers to meet with Aitcheson, they refused.
"There’s not much to say to him because he was [in the] Ku Klux Klan," said Philip Butler, now retired and in his 70s. "He had said he was coming back to put a pipe bomb in our door. So, he was a mean person at that time."
The diocese said they just learned about the civil suit over the weekend and said they are working with Aitcheson to make restitution.
Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia local news, events and information
The courts ordered Aitcheson to pay the Butlers $23,000, but Barbara Butler said they never got any money. She said she and her husband are retired and could use the money.
Having a cross burned on the Butlers' lawn was devastating, Barbara Butler said.
"I will never, ever forget that. We didn’t deserve this," she said.
Aitcheson, 62, is currently an associate pastor at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax, Virginia.
The Butlers were shocked to learn the man who terrorized them worked less than 25 miles away.
FBI records show Aitcheson sent letters to Coretta Scott King threatening to lynch and kill her if she visited the University of Maryland campus.
Aitcheson was also charged in Carroll County, Maryland for having illegal explosives after pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails were found in his home.
Aitcheson was arrested and convicted in 1977, then served 90 days in jail for the cross-burning in the Butler’s yard. He also served 60 days for his threats toward Scott King.
Aitcheson wrote about his past Klan affiliation Monday in The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese's newspaper. He apologized in the essay and mentioned cross burnings.
He said the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired him to speak out. But a reporter's inquiry may have played a role.
The diocese said in a statement issued Wednesday that a "freelance reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner" contacted the diocese and said she knew that Aitcheson's name matched that of the man convicted of cross-burnings.
"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 statement says.
Information was not released immediately on when the reporter contacted the diocese.
Aitcheson announced Tuesday he would take a leave of absence from his duties.