AS the longest running criminal trial in US history enters its third year, the issue it confronts - sexual abuse of children - still confounds the legal community and the general public. The McMartin preschool case, unraveling in a walnut-paneled courtroom here, has received nationwide - indeed, worldwide - attention. So far it has consumed 308 court days, 50,000 pages of transcript, and brought to the bench 99 witnesses. The cost to the public has been a record $15 million.
McMartin is a textbook case for lawyers and judges. It raises the question of whether the judicial process is equipped to handle with fairness the delicate and highly emotional issue of sexual abuse of minors. At several junctures the case has taken bizarre turns, some of which have threatened the continuation of the prosecution.
It also raises important issues of how to determine the validity of professionals' findings of molestation, how to evaluate children's testimony and protect the very young from intimidation in the courtroom, while guaranteeing the rights of defendants.
The trial grinds on amid a marked change in the atmosphere regarding sexual abuse of children. In 1983, when the case first arose, the problem of child sexual abuse was not high in the public consciousness.
Then, with the allegations in McMartin, coupled with several other highly visible cases - most notably bizarre reports of widespread molestation in Jordan, Minn. - a ``crisis'' mentality erupted over the problem. Suddenly, authorities everywhere were flooded with reports of child sexual abuse.
This led to a backlash by some people, who argued many sexual-abuse charges were false. They were buttressed in their arguments by the collapse of the Minnesota case after it was revealed investigators had subjected the children to improper and suggestive questioning and the charges against five of the seven McMartin defendants were dropped because of lack of evidence.
Today, experts contend much of the hysteria surrounding the problem has subsided. While they note that sexual abuse is still a significant problem, the public does not see a child molester lurking behind every door.
``Sexual abuse, as horrible as it is, does not stand out as the only form of maltreatment being perpetrated against children,'' says Anne Cohn of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.