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Fall from grace: Why Nienstedt had so little support among Twin Cities Catholics

Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
Archbishop John Nienstedt

The letters began arriving shortly before John Nienstedt was appointed archbishop in 2008: clean up or be shut down. It was the least that his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn, could do: play the good cop; warn the rebellious parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis before the bad cop arrived.

Nienstedt seemed to relish the bad-cop role. He wore a fedora, like a G-man. Through his Rumsfeldian, half-frame glasses, he saw sin everywhere, and he revamped the Catholic Spirit, a once-freethinking archdiocesan newspaper, as a pulpit to rail against it.

And he did indeed drive some of the most accommodating members among his flock of 750,000 into hiding, banning lay people from addressing the faithful during Mass, calling out priests who welcomed openly gay worshippers as abetting “a grave evil,” and quickly shutting down services like the one at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, in Minneapolis, where women often led the liturgy — without so much as a hello.

“You’re a controversial figure,” a woman told him back in 2008, at a St. Paul gathering of the National Council of Catholic Women. “I am?” he joked. “I tend to be straightforward — perhaps that puts people off.”

Nienstedt didn’t think he needed to explain — he appeared to be on the right side of history. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as church leadership was shifting back toward orthodoxy after decades of liberalization. They hoped that returning the church to its roots, or at least the 1950s, would galvanize the faith, purging the so-called cafeteria Catholics and leaving the rest with a clear identity. The only kind of priests who were coming out of seminary seemed to be conservatives, deputized to clean house. “If you don’t sweep and vacuum once a week,” a St. Paul priest told me, early in Nienstedt’s reign, “things get out of control.”

Nienstedt thought he had the backing of most Minnesotans — certainly most Catholics — when in 2012 he authorized $600,000 in archdiocese funds to support the campaign for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Such bans had passed in every state where they were proposed. But the tide was turning, even in the Vatican. When the ban failed and, nine months later, a new pope declared, “Who am I to judge” gay people, Nienstedt was suddenly on the outside looking in at a church he thought he knew.

Confessing to nothing, admitting to everything

What Nienstedt knew is ultimately what did him in. Twice last year he denied knowing about sexual abuse at the hands of his priests only to have evidence surface that he had been informed. As his leaders fell around him — the Rev. Kevin McDonough, his head of child safety; the Rev. Peter Laird, his vicar general; and even his predecessor, Harry Flynn, who resigned from the board of the University of St. Thomas — Nienstedt doubled down on secrecy, refusing interviews. Instead, he issued statements, creating a paper wall that only served to seal his isolation.

His departure will invigorate his opponents, the “servant-leader” priests in the liberal, post-Vatican II mode, like the Rev. Michael Tegeder who has long gray hair and has argued for ordinating women and married men, among other ideas that set Nienstedt’s close-cropped coif on fire. Priests like Tegeder have long been more popular in the pews than the law-and-order type — which is why he was moved during Nienstedt’s tenure from his post in a large Bloomington parish to a small inner-city Minneapolis church, where presumably he’d just be preaching to the choir — and they’ve been buoyed by Pope Francis’ remarkable swing toward compassion.

But there aren’t many of them left. Whoever succeeds Nienstedt will inherit a priesthood largely at odds with its new spiritual boss, the fearless Francis. When Pope Benedict resigned, in 2013, Nienstedt seemed caught by surprise and reminisced about Benedict’s hard-line take on “the incredibly important concerns about marriage and family life.” Now, in the same week he accepted Nienstedt’s resignation, the pope released a major encylical against environmental destruction and announced that he’d meet with a gay rights activist in Paraguay. 

The more the Vatican opened in the last couple years, the more Nienstedt closed up. He seemed to feel it was his duty, as a defender of the faith, to circle the wagons, that it was not a sin if it was done in service to the church. He says he leaves with a “clear conscience.”

Early in his tenure as archbishop, Nienstedt pushed for a return to personal confession, sidling up to a priest in a booth, and wrote in the Catholic Spirit that “there is an art on the part of the confessor in hearing a confession. The priest has to listen closely to what is being said ‘between the lines.’ ” Nienstedt appeared to confess to nothing, but in doing so he may have admitted to everything.

Tim Gihring is a former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, where he profiled former Archbishop Nienstedt in 2008. 

Comments (41)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/16/2015 - 09:48 am.

    “But the tide was turning, even in the Vatican”

    No, it’s not.

    I understand that secular leftists are of the opinion that the Catholic church is on the cusp of embracing the party, but it is not. There is no “hard line”…there is the Catholic line. The things that Pope Francis has said, are his opinion, he is not addressing Catholic dogma, nor will he.

    There are few things in this world that I’m 100% certain of, but the Catholic church’s stance on families, and the marital relationship between men and women is one of them.

    If there is one passage of the bible that can inform non-Catholics how someone can be so sure, it is Matthew 16:18

    Sin is sin by any other name. All the vitriol and outrage the secular left can muster will not move a stone of the Church.

    • Submitted by Paul Rider on 06/16/2015 - 10:56 am.


      I’ll take John 15.17 over Matthew 16.18 any day. In the Gospels is there one such reference to Peter. But there are dozens of references to Jesus’ overwhelming love for all people. Sorry, but the whole “Peter” thing has been disputed from day one. No one disputes the “love” thing. And I’d rather see a church built on the solid foundation of love than on the always shaky foundation of human fragility and hubris.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/16/2015 - 12:04 pm.

        “… the whole “Peter” thing has been disputed from day one. ”

        Lol. See, that’s what I’m talking about. It may have been disputed, but not among Catholics. Christ instructs us to love the sinner, and forgive the repentant, but never does He suggest we embrace sin.

    • Submitted by William Gleason on 06/16/2015 - 11:35 am.

      And how do you know this, Mr. Swift?

      “The things that Pope Francis has said, are his opinion, he is not addressing Catholic dogma, nor will he.”

      I would be careful about making predictions concerning whether the Pope will address Catholic dogma. This is only your opinion or, perhaps, hope.

      Given the Pope’s upcoming encyclical on global warming, and his reply of “who am I to judge” in response to questions about gays, I’d not be so certain.

      Sin is sin by any other name. But what is sin and what kinds of behavior are sinful. That’s the real question under discussion.

    • Submitted by Keith Lusk on 06/16/2015 - 11:37 am.

      Romans 2:1-4
      “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”

      Mr. Swift, it’s hearing Catholics like yourself condemn and label anyone and everyone that doesn’t agree with you that keeps people like myself away from the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air whether you like it or not. Change is hard, especially for Greedy Old People (GOP), but I’m pretty sure that if the Pope was singing your tune, he’d be more than sharing “his opinion” in your comments.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/16/2015 - 12:23 pm.

        We are called to judge sin for what it is, and to reject it. Repentance is the pathway to forgiveness for sinners, which is available to anyone.

        Francis, like all Popes, sets the tone for the Church. He is certainly free to speak his mind, but only when speaking ex cathedra does he set doctrine. That has happened twice, and both issues had to do with Mary. Pope Pius XII was the last Pope to speak ex cathedra, in 1950. I do not foresee such an occurrence forthcoming, and certainly none that will satisfy the desires of secular leftists.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 06/16/2015 - 05:11 pm.

          LOL…”we are called to judge.”

          I read that exact BS in a comment over at Redstate from somebody trying to justify their hatred of gays. Right before he finished up with some rant about another civil war if SCOTUS rules the wrong way.
          Birds of a feather…

        • Submitted by Ian Stade on 06/16/2015 - 10:04 pm.

          We are called…

          to strive to be the best versions of ourselves. For me, that means working to heal a world broken by the hardness of men’s hearts.

          The early church first and foremost took care of its poor and most vunerable. If sin creates a stumbling block in a Christian’s effort to do the good works that the gift of the Lord’s grace should facilitate, he should repent until he can love others and love himself.

          Tim, excellent article btw. Its hard to write an objective article about us twin cities Catholics, we are all over the map and no individual speaks for all of us. I’m a middle aged debut dad myself and have enjoyed your blog.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/16/2015 - 11:41 am.

      I suggest that you read and study

      The history of your church in its first 1000 years

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/16/2015 - 12:47 pm.

      Denial: Not Just A River in Egypt

      Conservatives are of two minds on Francis. On the one hand, they say nothing has changed or will change. On that score, they are correct. Church doctrine is unchanging, and any thoughts that Francis will declare gay marriages acceptable are naive. So liberals should stop their hyper-ventilating.

      On the other hand, conservatives are hyper-ventilating about Francis also. Look no further than his encyclical on climate change. “He’s not a scientist!” “He’s being led astray!” As if he were some 11 year old child. Francis has already performed his first miracle: he has conservatives wanting religion out of politics. I hate to date myself, but when I was a kid, “cafeteria Catholic” meant a liberal. But the worm has turned, indeed. How did conservative Catholics in Nebraska take it last month when their 3 bishops said that the State should eliminate the death penalty? Who is pro-life now?

      The bible contains challenging words for liberals and conservatives alike. Francis will disappoint the former and surprise that latter. Vatican II did not change Church doctrine in the least, but would one deny it changed the Church greatly?

      • Submitted by William Gleason on 06/16/2015 - 01:08 pm.

        An excellent and perceptive comment, Mr. Phelan

        My only hope is that the mess in which the Church finds itself with respect to birth control be cleaned up.

        History shows that this could be easily done. In fact, if the Church had gone along with Dr. John Rock’s reasoning on the matter, we would not be in the current situation where 95+% of Catholic women feel that they must ignore the Church’s teaching on this matter.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/16/2015 - 03:05 pm.

        From one conservative Catholic

        The Pope is certainly entitled to his opinions regarding climate. He’s not attempting to play scientist, he’s doing his job. I’ve got no problem.

        The death penalty is state sponsored murder, it is barbaric, it is a stain on humanity and a sin that should be abolished. It doesn’t matter if the condemned is guilty or innocent.

        Although I don’t know the church makes the differentiation but in my opinion, abortion is worse than execution of criminals in that it ends the life of the spiritually innocent. More than a stain, it is the absence of humanity.

        How am I doing?

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/17/2015 - 06:41 am.

        Authority is essential to the institutional Catholic faith. I’m a relativist, and I don’t know how many times I have been asked by Catholics, “How do you know what’s right and wrong if you don’t believe in some sort of authority?” which is a pretty good question. But a problem with authoritarianism comes, when the authotity’s view of issues, either in their substance, or their emphasis or tone, differs from one’s own views. Pope Francis is presenting that challenge to many Catholics today, as other popes have challenged other groups of Catholics in the past. It should be interesting to see how these issues play out.

    • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 06/18/2015 - 12:18 pm.

      The issue of gay marriage has never been about church dogma

      The issue of gay marriage in this country is about civil law – not church law. The Church can prohibit gay marriage as a matter of church law while acknowledging that the state has a very different interest in how marriage is defined under civil law.

  2. Submitted by Steven Serfius on 06/16/2015 - 10:23 am.

    Naive and clueless

    It is precisely the Church’s refusal to bow to the prevailing winds of the day that make it so appealing to lifelong Catholics like me. I don’t wish any ill will towards any of my fellow humans, whether they be saints or sinners. Lord knows, I have enough to answer for myself. That said, I will never see sin for anything other than what it is. You can continue in your attempts to water down or destroy the Catholic Church, but if you succeed, millions of us will simply continue to pray and worship as we always have. You will have to kill us all and frankly, son, you don’t have the stones.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/16/2015 - 03:04 pm.

      In other words

      Just let the priests abuse young boys without any punishment for the priests or the church for hiding and abiding the behavior. Purely disgraceful.

  3. Submitted by Patrick Hirigoyen on 06/16/2015 - 10:53 am.

    You have to heal the wounds

    This change in the leadership of the archdiocese, while perhaps overdue, should give the priests and laypeople of the Twin Cities a time to pause, step back and reflect on the words of Pope Francis: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

  4. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 06/16/2015 - 11:15 am.

    The left’s opposition of….

    the Catholic Church have historically focused on their views regarding gay marriage, celibacy in the priesthood and ordination of males only. They still remain convinced that the abuse scandals are due to the celibacy.

    • Submitted by Nathaniel Finch on 06/16/2015 - 11:34 am.


      What do you think the abuse scandals are due to? It seems odd to me that supposedly celibate men are dictating how everyone else’s sex life should play out. The church needs to get real about how people really live their lives and what people really do.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/16/2015 - 02:15 pm.

        Unrelated and related

        While the lack of sex doesn’t lead to predatory behavior, and thus doesn’t directly cause the abuse by priests, the culture of secrecy and assignment of moral authority (including celibacy) leads to an environment in which predators can find power and protection while sending prey to them. So, the rule that priests be celibate doesn’t cause the abuse, but plays a role in fostering it.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/17/2015 - 06:51 pm.

          No, it’s not celibacy itself, but the

          fact that a stated requirement for celibacy provides cover for men who are not interested in sexual relations with adult women.

          Until recently, a gay man could enter the priesthood, and questions along the lines of “Why doesn’t a nice young fellow like you have a girlfriend?” would immediately cease.

          There was no harm tot the public in that, as long as a priest with a homosexual orientation broke his vows only with other adult men.

          But the requirement of celibacy also provides cover for pedophiles. Not only would there be no questions about not getting married but the pedophile would have access to all those altar boys and parochial school children.

          Certainly there are heterosexual men who have sincerely given up sexual relations with women in favor of the priesthood. (My father, a Lutheran pastor, was friends with a Catholic priest who once said, “I hope they lift the celibacy requirement before I’m too old to take advantage of it.”) They’re not the problem, but their colleagues who use their position as a cover for predatory behavior need to be stopped from harming anyone else.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/16/2015 - 11:37 am.

      Why don’t you explain to us

      The reason for the incredible number of priests who have sexually abused young boys.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 06/16/2015 - 05:15 pm.

        Well, Logan…

        that would require scientific fact and the gathering of empirical data. To these people, that standard only applies to determining if someone is born gay or not.

    • Submitted by William Gleason on 06/16/2015 - 11:42 am.

      Sorry, but I don’t see many people

      claiming that the abuse scandals are due to celibacy. At least those in which young males were involved. Simply look at Wehmeyer’s record, even from before ordination, and what you will see is a person for whom celibacy was not the problem.

      To claim that the left unilaterally opposes the Catholic Church is simply not true. Look into Dorothy Day Centers and Catholic Charities, which is where “leftist” Catholics sent their money while the Archdiocese was enmeshed in scandal.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/16/2015 - 02:32 pm.

      Or . . .

      Is it plausible that a leftist could be in “opposition of” the Catholic Church on theological grounds?

  5. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 06/16/2015 - 11:27 am.

    Hie eminence’s legacy

    Archbishop Nienstedt worked very hard to recruit and curry the favor of young men he deemed fit for the seminary. WE have one of the largest classes of men in years because of his efforts at cloning.

    First order of business needs to be to assess the condition of these young men and see if they were abused in any way. Next is to screen them and see if they are fit to lead our glorious church through the century, and finally is to open the windows of the seminary to the world and to wisdom so that those who remain will be true followers of Christ and lovers of his people.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/16/2015 - 03:02 pm.


      While it is often claimed that the numbers are at historic highs st the St. Paul Seminary, many of those men will be serving in other diocese. This year’s ordination class for this Archdiocese was seven. By way of comparison, 10 retired. And the priests from the large early 1960’s era ordination classes are just hitting retirement age. An age which the outgoing bishop raised.

  6. Submitted by Kathleen Doran-Norton on 06/16/2015 - 11:30 am.

    No one to read the mail

    I just think it’s sad no one will be there to pick up the mail when Pope Francis’ letter arrives Thursday. Then again, with all the turmoil, maybe it would have just sat unopened on the kitchen table.

    Laudato sii!

  7. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/16/2015 - 08:05 pm.

    An unfitting end

    For the Church leader who has done the most to get the diocese out from under the sexual abuse scandals of the last half century. Given that addressing the issue of sexual predator priests represented maybe one percent of his day-to-day responsibilities and seeing all the progress made in just the last few months is disheartening. The Archbishop continues to be blamed for the actions of priests back in the 50’s and 60’s, which is a lot like blaming President Obama for the actions of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Yet, the man accepted the hand that he was dealt and never blamed the previous Archbishops Flynn and Roach (nor do the media) while doing what he could to help the Archdiocese in the best way he knew how.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/17/2015 - 05:15 pm.

      Get With The Times

      There is no way to judge the case of Nienstedt and Piche without reading the court documents filed by the county attorney. The details are sickening. Anyone who still thinks Nienstedt was treated unfairly needs to read those documents.

      This comment is unbelievably naive and uninformed. While Curtis Wehmeyer was admitted to the local seminary at the urging of bishop Harry Flynn, it was Nienstedt who elevated him from parochial administrator to pastor. When Jennifer Hasselberger brought Wehmeyer’s record to Nienstedt’s attention, the bishop chose to ignore that record. Parishioners brought concerns to church leadership, and those concerns were ignored. When Hasselberger (a conservative by the way) continued to press Nienstedt on Wehmeyer and other abusive priests, she was shut out.

      Wehemeyer abused three brothers not in the 50’s and 60’s, but just a few years ago. Nienstedt’s and Piche’s finger prints are all over the Wehmeyer case. While Flynn should not have insisted that Wehmeyer (and his questionable background) be admitted to the seminary and ordained, it was Nienstedt that promoted him, long after Flynn retired.

      Nienstedt rightfully gets more attention because he was the current bishop. But at minimum, Harry Flynn’s name should be removed from all church institutions and properties and there should be a full disclosure of his own misdeeds, and the same for Roach.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/17/2015 - 09:15 pm.


        I was referring to the whole period of time that Archbishop Nienstedt has served and all of the progress made in the last two years. There have still been as many school custodians convicted in the last six months as Catholic priests. I believe that the Archbishop hired a key ex-FBI guy to help straighten things out while also ordering an investigation on himself. As the bankruptcy continues Jeff Anderson scores tons of money as a huge settlement is given to the victims with no ugly court appearances for the victims and no chance for the accused priests (most are dead) to defend themselves.

        Compliments are due to the St. Paul police department who begged for anyone to come forward, got a handful, prosecuted nobody, and finally after over a year of investigation finally charged a monolith with six gross misdemeanors which a good street cop probably gets before lunch on a good day.

        Nienstedt got the attention because he was a conservative while Flynn was a progressive. Thank you for the last paragraph which concedes my whole point.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/16/2015 - 08:41 pm.

    Go humbly before your Lord

    Nienstadt was an arrogant, negative leader. Why would anyone other than another organization man admire or defend him? The issue is whether the new guy is an improvement, or cut from the same cloth .

  9. Submitted by Keith Kuckler on 06/17/2015 - 05:30 am.

    I have said it before, and, I will say it again, I can imagine some Roman saying wistfully, “too many Christians, not enough lions”. I am really tired of all of these religions that need to push their beliefs on those of us who choose to exercise our own version of spirituality. Ever wonder how it must have felt to be a Muslim living in Palestine when the Christian crusaders came to enforce their will, No wonder we are still embroiled in a mess, it has been going on for over a thousand years.

  10. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 06/17/2015 - 12:51 pm.

    This just confirms my suspicion…

    …that for conservative Catholics, the orthodoxy is to conservatism, not Catholicism.

  11. Submitted by Tom Regnier on 06/17/2015 - 03:35 pm.

    Catholics and (insert hated group name)

    There seems to be a lot to be said for atheism these days.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/17/2015 - 04:23 pm.

    Intolerance always implodes in the end. History is filled with ill fated attempts to organize a regime of some kind around intolerance and discipline. Likewise the reactionary impulse to time travel backwards never ends well, even in the movies.

    The religious impulse to colonize culture be it Inquisitions or attacks on cartoonists typically comes apart at the seams eventually as well. Not all religions or religious people exhibit such impulses but when they do it’s never a pretty sight. No one who lives in a world where people are beheaded, and tortured, and disfigured en masse but refers to homosexuality as a “grave evil” has any pretense of moral authority. The attempt to reach out beyond the walls of the church and enshrine religious intolerance in secular law was little more than a poingnant demonstration of moral bankruptcy. Is it any wonder that such men would condemn sex between consenting adults as “evil” while protecting rapists and pedophiles? It just shows to go ya that there’s no substitute for a functioning moral compass.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/17/2015 - 06:52 pm.

      My objections to homosexuality have always been rooted in science and human biology, because religious faith is voluntary, but since when do you get to declare someone else’s morality “bankrupt” while rocking the tolerance flag?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/18/2015 - 11:05 am.


        “Tolerance” does not mean that particular viewpoints are immune from criticism.

        You are perfectly free to object to homosexuality, and you are perfectly free to believe that your objections are “rooted in science and human biology.” Likewise, you are free to express those views. You should not, however, expect that “tolerance” means that you will be allowed to express these views without criticism.

        If that criticism takes the form of declaring your morality “bankrupt,” feel free to refute that declaration.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/22/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    About that investigation Neinstadt ordered into himself…

    Not to much it turns out. He tried to quash it when they ended up looking at his interest in young seminarians back the 80s. Typical.

  14. Submitted by Fredric Markus on 06/23/2015 - 05:05 am.

    Memories matter

    I have been estranged from the Roman Catholic Church for my entire adult life – I’ll be 77 years old in a few weeks. I was a pre-pubertal adolescent when I entered the Pontifical College Josephinum as a first-year seminarian and my beliefs at the time were beyond reproach among the many adults who sent me into this papal environment. My sexuality was not at issue. Once my soprano treble became the froglike croakings of a gravel gertie, I inadvertently realized that all was not well in my life in this cloistered environment.

    Fast forward to my departure from this spiritual pressure cooker as I came to a realization that who or what I perceived myself to be was fundamentally at odds with the strictures intended for me as a future ordinand. In the secular world of the day, I learned that I was immoral, illegal, and most likely insane. Not a good career prognosis for a confused twenty-year old spiritual orphan. One does not know how many other young men found themselves in this existential darkness, but surely their number is legion.

    When Pope Francis declares “Who am I to judge?” My heart is lifted. When local Catholic hierarchy are charged with what I conceive to be spiritual neglect of duty, my sense of eventual justice is enlivened. The harsh and vindictive regime of now departed Archbishop Niestedt embodied a corrupt abuse of spiritual authority that permitted a far more carnal abuse of young lives to be kept from public disapprobation. Never mind the accusation of spiritual rot – we are all fallible creatures to whom St. Paul directs a possible clarity of vision in his second epistle to the Corinthians. But still —

    What remains true, however, is that Dignity remains an unwanted child in the official eyes of Holy Mother Church and I cannot bring myself to believe that scientific and/or biological enlightenment will obtain meaningfully in the time I have yet to experience on this good Earth. Powerful players remain in charge and the current pontiff will be buried with his good intentions whatever the current sweeping changes in secular cultural values we now experience.

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