Catholic priest who burned cross on couple’s yard in 1977 comes forward – ABC News

Posted By on August 24, 2017

Philip Butler recalled on Wednesday that he was home watching television on the night 20 years ago when a flaming cross was staked outside his front door.

"This was the last day of the movie Roots," Butler recounted to the press about the evening he was spending inside his newly purchased house in College Park, Maryland back in January 1977. "I always remember that."

The finale, based on Alex Haley's novel, culminated a momentous television miniseries event that piped into American living rooms the tribulations of an African teen forced into bondage as an American slave.

Butler, who said during a press conference today that hes a Vietnam veteran, and his wife Barbara -- both African-American -- only discovered they were the target of the horrifying statement left kindling on their yard when a concerned neighbor telephoned them.

"I came out," Butler recounted to reporters during a press conference at his attorney's office in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. "[The cross] was about 6-7-foot... I knew that, hey, someone is against us."

Then he became introspective "What did we do to get a cross put in our yard?" he asked.

Now, 40 years later, William Aitcheson, the man guilty of the act, has come forward. He says hes now found Jesus Christ and serves God as a Catholic priest in Arlington, Virginia.

On Sunday, he published a mea culpa, without naming his victims, in the parish's newspaper.

In the piece, titled "Moving from hate to love with God's grace" Aitcheson, 62, essentially outed himself to his parish as a former white knight.

"I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he wrote. "My actions were despicable. When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else.

"It's hard to believe that was me," he adds.

The priest then wrote after four decades, "I must say this: I'm sorry. To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me."

The incident 40 years ago at the Butlers was one of six burning crosses that then 23-year-old reputed KKK cyclops was convicted for a year later. He was also found guilty of sending Coretta King, widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a menacing letter, according to multiple articles from 1977 and 1978.

Aitcheson was sentenced to 60 days in jail and four years probation following a guilty plea, ordered to pay at least $20,000 restitution, and gift two Jewish organizations in Maryland, according to the Washington Post. The organizations were B'nai B'rith Hillel at the University of Maryland and Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville.

It was unclear if Aitcheson made good on paying to the two groups. The Butlers say they received a small payment, but not the full amount. Phone calls and emails placed by ABC News in an attempt to reach both Fr. Aitcheson and the Dioscese of Arlington were not immediately returned.

"We're going to research not only the judgment that has been handed down, but we're going to also seek and see what, if any interest, would have accrued with that judgment," Philip and Barbara Butler's attorney Ted Williams said.

The money is one thing, but for 40 years and counting, the Butlers say they were hurt from the priest's silence.

Now they aren't certain whether they would even consider speaking with the man who suggested he's been "humbled" by God and advocates for "peace and mercy" for any white supremacists who were like him and held "vile beliefs."

"We would have to think about it," Philip said.

His wife doesn't think an apology can heal their wounds.

"What's he going to say, besides he's sorry?" Barbara Butler asked.

Their attorney won't even broach a meeting until Aitcheson reveals who else aided him in the cross burnings.

"For there to be any kind of accord, [Father Aitcheson] needs to give up other Klansmen or Klanswomen who was involved in putting that cross on the Butlers' property," Williams said.

Since publishing the repentant article, Aitcheson, according to a footnote, "voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well being of the Church and parish community, and the request was approved."

A subsequent statement by the Diocese of Arlington claimed they are working with Fr. Aitcheson to "seek reconciliation and restitution" and attempting to broker a chance to have a meeting with the Butlers "in a pastoral, private setting" in order "to bring them healing."

The Butlers' plight was given new life back in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan, who called the cross burning "reprehensible," personally showed up at the Butler's home in a show of solidarity.

Back then, according to the Associated Press, Butler described his terror of living in a mostly white-dominated neighborhood.

"It's hard to leave every morning and come back and wonder if your home is still there," he said, and told the president "You give us hope."

ABC News has reached out to the following for comment: Aitcheson, Butler attorney Ted Williams, the Arlington Archiocese, Bnai Brith Hillel at the University of Maryland and Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville.

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Catholic priest who burned cross on couple's yard in 1977 comes forward - ABC News

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