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Americans cope with sensitive subject

Until just a few years ago, the plight of sexually abused children was one of America's best-kept secrets. Today, molestation of children is discussed openly not only in judicial circles but in state legislatures, municipal councils, and school forums.

Virtually every state has added planks about sex abuse to its broader child-abuse laws. Most states have passed, or at least proposed, special procedures for handling children in the courtroom.

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Highly publicized, but controversial, prosecutions of alleged offenders in California and Minnesota have given the public a graphic picture of the problem. These cases have also focused a spotlight on the inadequacies and possible misuses of the judicial process in dealing with sexual abuse.

All this debate, plus some recent reports, give the impression that molestation of children has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. But Monitor interviews with lawyers, judges, children's specialists, and others show that these perceptions may be vastly overblown.

These experts reveal, nonetheless, that there are serious problems in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse in the legal setting:

The US judicial system may have to go back to the drawing board to find better ways of coping with the extremely delicate problem of molestation of children.

In passing laws and setting public policy, the nation must find a more workable balance between its quest to uncover child sex abuse and its responsibility to protect the rights of the accused.

Some experts also suggest that in certain intrafamily situations, especially those involving sexual interaction between a child and an adult relative, resolution may best be made outside the courtroom, perhaps through counseling or private mediation. Others insist that indictment of suspected sex offenders -- and the meting out of jail sentences to those convicted -- is important to deter other would-be molesters.

``Prevention. Prevention. Prevention. That's what all judges and prosecutors must keep in mind first,'' insists John M. Yeaman, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

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``But there should be prosecution,'' stresses Judge Yeaman. `` I'm not saying that they [convicted or confessed sex assailants] should be stripped and hung. But this type of thing isn't usually handled in a social family setting.''

Yeaman, who presides over the sixth judicial circuit in Missouri, says he believes that certain convictions of sexual abuse can be resolved through ``informal adjudication . . . with broad-based counseling and perhaps no incarceration.''

The controversy over courtroom vs. counseling is just one aspect of the debate that now surrounds the issue of sexual abuse of children. The very nature of the charge, particularly as it relates to preschoolers, has triggered highly emotional responses on all sides.

For instance, when the Los Angeles district attorney recently dropped sex-abuse charges against five of seven defendants in the McMartin Pre-School case, angered parents not only said they would seek reindictment in the state courts but some even threatened harm to those acquitted. Preliminary hearings in this case, which has not yet reached the actual trial stage, dragged on for 18 months at a public cost of more than $4 million.

One judge, who asked not to be named, has presided over sex-abuse cases for almost a decade and says that after hearing some particularly explicit testimony about molestation of a child ``I have to restrain myself from getting down from the bench and punching him [the defendant] out.''

On the other side, defense lawyers talk passionately about ``programming'' of children, by clinical investigators, to get them to vividly describe alleged experiences of abuse; prompting of youthful witnesses on the stand; and the creation of a ``media event'' atmosphere around sex-abuse trials, focusing on an assumption of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence on the part of defendants.

``I am overwhelmed by the emotionality of the issue,'' says Prof. Robert W. ten Bensel, director of the University of Minnesota's program in maternal and child health.

``At heart is a spiritual issue that cries out for atonement,'' points out this medical specialist who also stresses the moral questions surrounding child abuse. ``And how do you reconcile emotional outrage in terms of atonement?'' How widespread is abuse in the US?

There is a broad range of estimates -- from 60,000 to nearly 1 million incidents. The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (NCPCA) says the figure is somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000, which is a 200 percent increase over a decade ago. But the NCPCA admits it does not know whether this trend reflects a growing number of cases or merely better reporting of sexual-abuse victims.

Lindsay G. Arthur, senior judge of the district court in Minneapolis, tends to believe it is the latter. ``Many of the reporting laws are new. So there is more reporting, maybe not incidence. Like homosexuality, it is coming out of the closet.''

``Morals have not broken down,'' agrees Judge Yeaman, who has sat on this type of case for more than a decade. ``We have just convinced people now that there is a place to help them.''

Other surveys have shown a significant increase in reporting of alleged sex abuse in areas where a specific case is being covered by the press and when there is other media coverage. For example, the California Consortium of Child Abuse Councils says that coverage of the McMartin case coupled with television productions like ``Something About Amelia,'' a TV movie about incest, accounted for well-above-the-national-average reporting in the state in 1985.

Further, polls in some communities indicate that while a majority of people believe that sex abuse of children is on the upswing, their definitions of just what constitutes molestation vary, ranging from verbal sexual suggestions by an adult to a child to actual intercourse. Can courts cope with the problem?

Predictably, judges and lawyers tend to believe that the courts are the proper forum for resolving this type of dispute. Therapists and those in the social services are less sure that the legal system is able to effect justice, especially for children.

Aaron Cohn, a veteran family court judge in Columbus, Ga., sees faults in the judicial system. ``But the law is not a stagnant thing. It grows with trends. And we are sharpening up our techniques [in dealing with cases of sexual abuse].''

Judge Cohn and others stress that the legal system is learning from ``failed prosecutions,'' such as those in McMartin case in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and a case in Scott County, Minn. In dropping charges against most of the defendants in the southern California community, Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner cited lack of evidence against former teachers and staff of the McMartin Pre-School, particularly the inability to corroborate the testimony of dozens of children who claimed they were abused.

In Minnesota, after a much-publicized prosecution against 21 local citizens was discontinued for lack of evidence, state Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III investigated charges that the county prosecutor had acted improperly in the matter. The report that followed contained specific recommendations on shoring up investigations and prosecutions against sex-abuse suspects.

Meanwhile, legal authorities continue to debate laws that would limit appearances in court by very young children; allow uncorroborated hearsay testimony of youngsters to be admitted to the court record; and sanction the use of videotapes and closed-circuit television cameras to ease the strain of the courtroom experience for children. What about rights of defendants?

Lawyers of those accused of sex abuse contend that their clients' constitutional protections seem almost forgotten in the emotionalism surrounding sex-abuse cases. These include the right to a speedy and open trial as well as the right to confront one's accusers.

Ralph Underwager, a Minneapolis defense attorney who has had broad experience in sexual-abuse cases, says that ``the full weight of the justice system comes down [on the accused] as if it was already determined that he or she was guilty.''

Judge Marshall P. Young of the seventh judicial circuit in South Dakota -- a strong advocate of reforms to reduce the pressures on child victims -- nonetheless insists that ``we need to establish reforms that are constitutional and that value liberty and assume that an individual is innocent until proven guilty.'' First of three articles. Next: The search for truth when a child accuses an adult.

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