ABB Jean-Yves Cottard had a simple answer to parents who questioned the safety of his ultra-Catholic, ultra-disciplinarian scouting camps. "I have two extraordinary insurance policies," he said. "The first is St Joseph Assistance, the second is Guardian Angel 24 hours."
St Joseph and the Guardian Angels must have been occupied elsewhere on the day that Abbe Cottard, 51, sent seven inexperienced teenagers out in a small yacht without an instructor in heavy seas off Brittany.
The clergyman, suspected of links with the far-right National Front, raised the alarm only when the youngsters, aged between 12 and 16, were seven hours overdue. Their boat had capsized almost as soon as it had ventured out of port.
By the time that rescuers found the craft, four of the children had died. A yachtsman drowned in the rescue attempt. The three survivors spent eight hours clinging to the overturned boat.
Last week Abbe Cottard, who belongs to the fundamentalist Catholic order of Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, in schism from Rome since the mid-1970s, was controversially released from custody in Rennes. He had been placed under formal examination for manslaughter and negligence, but the court of appeal in the Breton capital decided to release him from custody while the investigation continues.
The decision to release him was greeted with fury by the mother of the drowned rescuer, but with delight by the parents of the four scouts who died. "To be deprived of our dear Abbe in these painful hours is perhaps a loss even more painful than that of our children," said Dominique Buchet, father of one of the drowned teenagers, 13-year-old Antoine.
"He is our father, the physician of our souls, and we have more need of him than ever ... Why has he been locked up like a common criminal?" asked Bertrand Provost, father of another victim, Jean-Baptiste, 16. The families have angrily rejected all offers of help from psychiatrists or social workers to help them deal with their grief.
The reaction of the bereaved families, apparently more concerned for the well-being of Abbe Cottard than to ask questions about how their children died, has caused consternation in France. It has thrown new light on the complex and fragmented world of the French far-right, and its scores of youth groups, including at least 30 different scout and guide organisations not recognised by the government or international scouting.
After the tragedy off the Breton coast last month, Jean-Marie Montel, the director of the mainstream Scouts de France (also Catholic) denounced the "iron discipline" and "paramilitary practices" of Abbe Cottard's Association Francaise des Scouts et Guides Catholiques.
The AFSGC belongs to the most radical of several Catholic splinter groups, which denounces the reforms of the Vatican II Council, insists on celebrating the Mass in Latin and campaigns against both "atheist Marxism" and the "decadence and materialism" of free-market capitalism.
On at least one occasion, Abbe Cottard's association has staged a joint rally with the National Front's own uniformed youth organisation "the Cadets de France et d'Europe".
Maitre Jacques Bourdais, lawyer for the family of the drowned would-be rescuer, Guillaume Castanet, described the Abbe's organisation last week as "a sect".
He said: "You have to see the veneration in which these families hold their spiritual leader. The Abbe acts just like a guru. Worst of all, he is evading his responsibilities."
A few days after the tragedy, a Latin Mass was held for the victims at Mantes-la-Jolie, west of Paris. A colleague of Abbe Cottard gave a sermon in which he said: "Poor world, which fails to understand the peace of the [bereaved] families, which displays its ignorance in wishing to turn the parents into dependants, by sending them psychiatrists and psychologists ..."
Soon after, one of the young survivors of the yacht wreck threw his scouts' jersey to the floor of the church, in apparent disgust, and marched out. He was escorted away by other scouts and rangers.
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