Pastor says he’s getting helpA pastor says an affair with a stripper that led to extortion charges against her and a fall from grace for him could make for an important sermon. “I hope someday I get to preach that sermon, but only time will tell,” the Rev. Mark Ostgarden said Wednesday. “In the meantime, I intend to get the help I need and seek counseling and find some work.”
By: By James MacPherson, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — A pastor says an affair with a stripper that led to extortion charges against her and a fall from grace for him could make for an important sermon.
“I hope someday I get to preach that sermon, but only time will tell,” the Rev. Mark Ostgarden said Wednesday. “In the meantime, I intend to get the help I need and seek counseling and find some work.”
A solemn Ostgarden, 52, who resigned last month as an associate pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Valley City, said he is working to save his marriage after an affair that started three years ago when he responded to a classified ad for an exotic dancer.
“My wife and I are staying together and we’re getting help with a counselor,” Ostgarden said. “We have been married 32 years and we are committed to staying together and seeing this through together.”
Bunny Byington, 46, of Moorhead, Minn., is charged in that state with three felonies accusing her of coercion or attempted coercion by extorting $7,000 from Ostgarden in exchange for keeping quiet about their affair. She is free on $500 bail.
Byington does not have a telephone listing in the Moorhead area. Her attorney, Bruce Ringstrom, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Ostgarden told police he found Byington through a classified ad and initially paid her $100 to dance nude for a half-hour, according to court documents. He later began contacting her every few months, paying $200 each time he had sex with her, the documents said.
In March, Byington allegedly told him he no longer had to pay her and to consider their relationship an affair.
Court documents say Byington told the pastor around Easter that she was “post-menopausal, so there was no chance she would get pregnant and no need to use a condom anymore.” Later, she told Ostgarden she was pregnant and apologized for lying to him, then told him she had a miscarriage and was keeping the fetus in embalming fluid, the documents say.
On May 14, Byington began demanding money to keep quiet, court papers say.
In an instant message, authorities allege, Byington told Ostgarden to slide $6,000 under her door and wrote that, “if it’s not there, then I take so much more from you. Think.”
Court papers say Ostgarden paid $5,000 on May 15, $1,000 on May 18 and $1,000 on May 29. He gave police documents detailing withdrawals and loans he made to get the money.
Ostgarden told The Associated Press he paid Byington by “digging into savings and such — it was nothing illegal.”
Byington allegedly demanded an additional $18,000 on June 5, saying she had contacted an attorney who told her that would be a reasonable settlement.
Court documents say Byington went to Ostgarden’s wife, a senior pastor and assistant to the bishop, after Ostgarden told her he could not come up with the $18,000 in hush money.
“There got to be a point there was no more to be had,” Ostgarden said.
Bishop Bill Rindy, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Eastern North Dakota Synod, said Byington told him she was involved with a married pastor and that he spoke with her several times before she revealed the pastor’s name.
“I encouraged her to share that name with me when she felt comfortable and she eventually did,” Rindy said.
The bishop said he met with Byington on June 5 and she named Ostgarden. She also e-mailed him a picture of Ostgarden wearing only underwear and a T-shirt, Rindy said.
He said he drove to Valley City that day to meet with Ostgarden, who submitted his resignation. Ostgarden also notified authorities.
“I encouraged him to be as truthful as he could,” Rindy said.
Ostgarden had been pastor of the church for about nine years, said the bishop, who addressed Ostgarden’s congregation of about 1,300 in person the following Sunday and sent them a letter.
“The gist of the letter said that Mark had been involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship with an adult female who was not from the congregation or the community,” Rindy said. “Basically, what we’ve learned over the years is that secrecy did not serve the church very well. It’s far better to be open and transparent.”
A church council will decide in September whether Ostgarden remains in the clergy, the bishop said.
“Mark is in the process of doing what he needs to do to establish trust at several places along the way,” he said. “The congregation would have to feel comfortable calling him back to service as their pastor.”
Ostgarden said he has found support from his former flock.
“The congregation has been quite good about calling and visiting,” he said. “Despite the fact I’ve hurt them, they have been so kind and gracious and forgiving.”