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Stripper charged with extorting Lutheran pastor over sex

A Valley City, N.D., pastor was allegedly blackmailed this spring by a Moorhead prostitute with whom he had been meeting weekly for three years. The woman is in jail in Moorhead facing extortion charges and the pastor has resigned his pulpit and ...

The Rev. Mark S. Ostgarden
The Rev. Mark S. Ostgarden resigned from his position as associate pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Valley City, N.D., on June 5 after he contacted Moorhead police about an exotic dancer extorting him to keep their affair secret.

A Valley City, N.D., pastor was allegedly blackmailed this spring by a Moorhead prostitute with whom he had been meeting weekly for three years.

The woman is in jail in Moorhead facing extortion charges and the pastor has resigned his pulpit and is getting counseling.

According to documents in Clay County District Court in Moorhead, Bunny Annette Byington, 46, demanded $7,000 from the Rev. Mark Ostgarden for sexual services. After Ostgarden paid her the $7,000, she demanded $18,000 more, and he said he couldn't do it. Byington then informed Ostgarden's bishop, wife and the senior pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran where he was an assistant pastor.

She sent Bishop Bill Rindy a photo of Ostgarden in bed wearing only underwear and a T-shirt.

Formerly of Hatton, N.D.

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Ostgarden, who is 52 and previously served a church in Hatton, N.D., worked in Our Savior's Lutheran in Valley City for nine years, according to the Rev. Randy Schlecht, senior pastor at the church.

Byington, of Moorhead, is charged in Clay County District Court with two counts of felony coercion and one count of felony attempted coercion.

A Clay County prosecutor said Ostgarden has not been charged, partly because the only evidence of his participation in prostitution is his confession.

Ostgarden told police he paid began paying Byington for sex three years ago. In March, she agreed to stop taking money for the sex and they continued to meet weekly. May 14, she demanded $6,000 or she would tell his bishop. He paid her. Byington then demanded more and he paid her another $1,000. When she again demanded $18,000 and he refused, she contacted his wife, the Rev. Schlect and Bishop Rindy.

Byington was released from jail last Thursday after posting $500 cash bail.

Rindy, bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is pastor for all 102,000 people in 233 congregations, including the 219 pastors in the pulpits, he says.

On June 5 Byington told Rindy the name of the pastor she had been having sex with and "within hours," he was in Valley City talking with Ostgarden and taking his resignation, Rindy told the Herald today. The same day, Ostgarden had contacted the police about Byington's alleged blackmail.

On June 7, Rindy met with the congregation and told them the broad outlines of the situation: their assistant pastor had an inappropriate relationship with an adult dancer and had resigned.

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September decision

The synod council will decide in September whether Ostgarden will remain on the clergy roster; if he's removed, he can't get a job in the entire ELCA, the nation's largest Lutheran body.

There is no indication or allegation that any church funds were used illegally or inappropriately by Ostgarden, Rindy said. It's synod policy that clergy don't have carte blanche to use congregational or other church funds, including weekly offerings, which usually are monitored and controlled carefully by parish members elected as treasurers or to other offices in the congregation.

ELCA clergy, married or single, are expected to not engage in sexual relations outside marriage.

'Higher standard'

"We hold pastors to a higher standard," he said. "We don't believe pastors are any better than anyone else. They are just held to a higher standard."

Rindy said it's times like these when what Lutherans repeat every Sunday from the Bible takes on real meaning.

"'If we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins,' " Rindy said, reciting from the liturgy and scripture. "We proclaim that and we believe it."

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He's assigned a pastor to counsel privately with Ostgarden and another to work with his wife and two adult children, Rindy said. "And I offered pastoral care to Bunny if she wants to make use of it."

During the process, both of Byington's extortion and after, Rindy said he talked with her by telephone and in person. He confirmed that she sent him a photo of Ostgarden.

Whether Ostgarden ever could serve again as an ELCA pastor would, aside from any possible criminal charges, "be a long and narrow road to regain everyone's trust," Rindy said.

There are cases of pastors who admit to adultery and later serve again as pastors, after a period of reconciliation. But typical is what happened last year in Crookston: a male pastor whose marriage broke up over an adulterous relationship was removed from the congregation and from the ELCA's clergy roster.

Rindy said it's a case of a pastor making a big mistake and now facing the consequences.

"He's still a child of God and God still loves him."

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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