MANHATTAN BEACH, CALIF. -- In November 1984, 14 months after Raymond Buckey was arrested on suspicion of child molestation at the McMartin Preschool, a psychologist sat in her examining room and watched the 4-year-old girl who had been brought by her parents for evaluation. The parents waited outside, as was the custom, and the psychologist made notes.

It is important here to see these four people, not because there is anything odd about them but because in Manhattan Beach in 1984 they are part of a landscape that no one entirely understands. On one side of the door sit the child and the psychologist, a woman of creditable reputation who for seven months has been listening to a series of children's accounts that seem to her with remarkable consistency to be describing something she can neither name nor explain. On the other side sit two sober adults, both professional people, both waiting to find out whether their daughter is one of the multiplying number of children -- the rumors now are suggesting many hundreds -- who say they were sexually molested in preschools around Manhattan Beach.

These are latecomers to the preschool investigations; all summer long, as word passed publicly and privately that children were reporting molestation not simply at McMartin but also at preschools all about the city, this couple took some care to avoid the panic around them. They chose not to attend the large group meetings, or use the telephone lines set up exclusively to pass on information about the spreading molestation reports.

Then the investigation reached their own daughter's preschool. The school owner called to tell them the state Department of Social Services had ordered it closed. And now the mother and father do not know what to think, so they have been referred to a therapist at a counseling center in Manhattan Beach. They are waiting for the therapist to tell them nothing happened.

"The whole idea of the interview," the girl's father says now, four years later, "was to get a clean slate."

The father is wedged, as he says this, into a very small chair in the examining room of the therapist who first interviewed his daughter, who is home with a baby sitter. To his left sits the therapist, whose voice is measured and calm; across the room, her back against the big throw pillows, sits his wife. All three have asked that their names not be printed in the newspaper, the couple for reasons of privacy, and the therapist because her employers have asked her not to make public statements now, although she was interviewed by sheriff's investigators, like all the therapists taking molestation reports in Manhattan Beach.

What follows, made available with permission of the parents, is a summary of the therapist's review of her notes from her first interview with their daughter, who will be given here the pseudonym of Jessie:

The therapist asked if anything Jessie didn't like had ever happened to her at school. Jessie said little boys had once put grass in her underpants.

The therapist asked if a grown-up had ever done that. Jessie named one of the teachers, and said this teacher had once taken her own clothes off.

The therapist asked if Jessie had ever been taken away from school. Jessie said she had been taken to a scary place, inside a cave, like Dungeons and Dragons, with a scary robot. She said she had been taken to a school where boys and girls were allowed to hit each other, that bad grown-ups came to the school, and that her teacher -- the same one she had named earlier -- tried to take Jessie's clothes off there.

The therapist asked if any grown-ups had touched her. Jessie said a man had touched her, that the teachers drove them to haunted houses, and that grown-ups "probably" touched children's bottoms. She said a teacher put a flute in her vagina at school. She said another teacher had taken Jessie's clothes off and had driven her to the hitting school.

The therapist spent approximately two hours in her examining room with Jessie, and when she was finished she asked Jessie's parents to come in, so that she and Jessie could tell the parents together what Jessie had said. Jessie's mother has no clear memory of this conversation; she remembers being told that there appeared to have been some undressing at Jessie's school, but principally she remembers thinking her legs might give way beneath her.

Jessie's parents thanked the therapist and took their daughter home. When they were inside their house, which is a handsome two-story place on one of the streets that slope up from the Pacific, Jessie began for the first time to talk to her parents about the bad people. She talked at dinner, and she talked into the night. She was afraid to sleep in her own bed. She told her mother that the bad people were going to come, that they would get Jessie or her parents. She said they had used a black gun to kill a cat and a dog, and that they had frightened her with a black machine that threw rocks.

For weeks and then months Jessie talked about the machine, how it moved, how it threw the rocks. She talked about drinking spider's blood, and having spiders put on her body, and people who tied her up or put needles on her bottom. She described the camera she said people had used to take photographs of her. She said she had tasted sticky pee-pee, which is one of the details her father remembers with particular clarity; as disoriented as he was by what appeared to be happening in his house, it was clear to him that his 4-year-old daughter was describing ejaculate.

"The sheer quantity of information was overwhelming," he says. "I still couldn't believe it. But it didn't make sense that there should be so much information coming out all at once -- hours and hours."

"All night," Jessie's mother says.

They bought a journal, a black volume kept where Jessie's mother might reach it easily when the child came to her and said she had more to tell. It might be in some quiet part of the day when this happened, or it might be during one of the nights when Jessie woke in her parents' bed, which was now the only place she could fall asleep. "I need the black book," she would say to her mother. "This is new. This is important." Sometimes in the night they would walk the length and breadth of the house, the mother holding the weeping child, so that Jessie could feel each door and window and see that it was locked.

The possibility of psychosis had not escaped Jessie's parents; her mother wondered for a while whether the child had somehow been given PCP or some hallucinogenic drug. "But her stories were consistent," she says. "Her description of that little dog and the cat and the gun and the rock-throwing machine were consistent from week to week."

They knew, Jessie's mother says, that they were living with a profoundly frightened child. And they knew this, too, because you could scarcely live in Manhattan Beach and not know it: There were children like Jessie all over town.

Among the Believers

If it was psychosis, it was like no psychosis that anybody in Manhattan Beach had ever heard of before. If it was psychosis it came with medical reports, reports that appeared, even though their reliability might be disputed by other physicians, to indicate that vaginal or anal scarring was visible among at least some of the children who had talked about abuse. If it was psychosis it had spread among an extraordinary number of children -- nobody had reliable figures, but by late 1984 therapists and investigators were taking what were described as molestation reports from children in eight preschools in the small coastal area around Manhattan Beach.

And if it was psychosis, it was affecting apparently unremarkable families -- the preparation of these articles included interviews with one or both parents from 11 of the families from the preschool investigations -- and making their children insist not only that they had seen these things, or heard about these thing, but that these things had actually happened to them, things whose very description required visual images that bewildered the men and women who listened to their children talk.

In Manhattan Beach there were 4-year-old children talking about babies, babies' blood, the cutting of babies' bodies. How do you know it was a baby and not a doll, the mothers would ask, and the children would say: I saw it move. A child described people chanting in a church; another child drew pictures of the "red leader" and of babies in pits; another child described the "payer men" who would come to his school to put their penises on him and defecate on him and do something else, something that confused the child's parents until they began to think that he also was describing ejaculate.

"What he said to his father as one of the worst things," the mother of this last child says, describing the moment when her husband's skepticism snapped and he began in one searing rush to believe that what their son was telling him was true, "was it always made him thirsty. And the man would never let him get a drink of water."

A word was traveling from family to family, becoming a kind of private signal as it passed. The word was "disclosure," and it was used to describe the accounts of these children; the children were disclosing with therapists, it was said, or their parents. An aerospace worker says it was she and her teen-aged son who sat through the initial disclosure of her 13-year-old nephew, a boy who had attended McMartin 10 years earlier and whose younger brother had already reported being molested there; the boy sat in her home, the aerospace worker says, and spoke in such a monotone, weeping silently and looking at no one, that she thought of the movie "The Exorcist." "There was a lot of perspiration coming down his face as he was talking," she says. "And he kept saying, 'It's sick. It's disgusting.' "

A homemaker named Leslie Floberg says the disclosures of her son, who had attended not McMartin but two of the other schools under investigation, began when she told him -- adding no further details, she says -- that his cousin had talked to a doctor about what happened at the school. Her son looked at her, Floberg says, and said, "Did he tell her about touching the girls' vaginas with sticks?"

And Linda Acosta, who works as a masseuse in Manhattan Beach, says she took the younger of her two sons for a therapeutic evaluation because his preschool had come under investigation and because his older brother, who had also attended Manhattan Beach preschools, had for some years appeared disturbed and depressed enough that she had taken him for psychiatric consultations. "He disclosed everything," Acosta says of the younger boy's initial therapy visit. "Lights, cameras, lots of cameras, syringes in their bottoms ... He talked about being touched on his penis. And they, he, had to touch them."

As she tells this story -- the older boy soon afterward began his molestation reports, she says -- Acosta is sitting cross-legged in the sunshine outside her front gate. Behind her the narrow city street is bright with spring flowers and pastel cottages and temporarily abandoned children's toys. It is a pleasant street in an expensive town, and this is how these conversations are held: Well-dressed women and men, many of them articulate and calm and clearly not eager for public attention, explain the things they saw before them that made them believe that adults -- adults never charged by any police agency -- actually did these things to small children, actually touched them and sodomized them and made them participate in some form of satanic rite.

The following story is told by a Manhattan Beach preschool teacher who had more than 15 years experience teaching 4- and 5-year-olds before she was asked to work in a day-care program made up of children from preschools closed because of the investigations. "I had no idea it was going to be like it was," the teacher says. "We had probably the most antisocial group of children I'd ever seen, the most frightened group of children I'd ever seen, and I guess the most angry group of children I'd ever seen."

Almost daily, the teacher says -- this was in part confirmed by colleagues who recall either the same incidents or the teacher's descriptions of them -- one or more of the girls ran straight out the door, sometimes screaming and running down the sidewalk so fast that an adult would have to sprint to overtake her. Boys and girls together, set off by certain words and other triggers the teacher never entirely understood, would run in groups around the periphery of the room, repeating in unison the same chorus of expletives. "Almost a chant," the teacher says. "The only way we could stop it was to literally restrain them."

They talked a great deal about throwing up, the teacher says, and about something they called "bloodsuckers" -- these were some of the words that seemed to her to set off the circling. Their sexual play was far more explicit than anything she had ever seen in young children. She remembers many of the children, not just one or two, taking up dolls and the plastic knives left out for clay, pointing the knives at the dolls' throats, and declaring that they would cut first the legs, and then the arms, and then the head.

The teacher remembers handing three small girls some clay one day, and then watching as the girls rubbed clay in their hair and on their bodies while they repeated the expletive chant and talked to themselves about feces and vomit. One of the girls pulled over a free-standing mirror, the teacher says, and began to heave mounds of clay at it. "I hate you," the girl said into the mirror, and then she said it again, the teacher says, and again.

The teacher says she stood by these girls for nearly a half hour, and that when she thought they were beginning to relax she took each of them to the sink, one by one, and washed their hair. "And I said, 'Okay, now we're washing all the poop down the drain,' " she says. "And one of them looked at me, and she said, 'Can we wash all the blood down the drain too?' "

In that moment, the teacher says, she felt extremely cold. She says she told the child that it would be all right to wash the blood away too. The girls asked for a book to look at, and the teacher picked one out. "They went out to play," she says, "and I came down to the counseling center and sat down and just sobbed."

The Rules of the Game

Claudia Krikorian, in the summer of 1984, was what was being referred to around Manhattan Beach as an "uncharged suspect." There were many dozens of uncharged suspects, all of them people whose names had been written down by investigators or parents or therapists after they turned up in children's abuse reports; part-time baby sitters figured among them, and a local grocer, and an Episcopal priest. Krikorian, who like all of these people was never formally accused of any crime as a result of the investigations, ran preschools. She had two campuses, both of them in towns a short drive away from Manhattan Beach, and in one of them, early in 1984, she says she was told that one of her teachers was under investigation for showing a child pornographic pictures.

Parents were contacted, Krikorian says, and told about the investigation -- told over the telephone, she says, that their own children might have been somehow molested at school. She says the children were taken to therapists. And after a time, Krikorian says, they began to say they had been molested. "Vaginal penetration, anal penetration, oral copulation," she says. "And that got boring after a while. So they started going to cemeteries. We were killing babies in school, we were flinging their bodies around, with body parts flying all over the place ... drinking of urine and blood, being locked up in cages, being flown in airplanes, the robes, and the chanting, in the church sanctuary -- mind you, the church people are all working up there while they're doing this."

Krikorian herself, she says, was supposed to have been one of the major perpetrators, although she had not initially been mentioned at all. "I was one of the ones who was marching them down to the cemetery, and then we'd bury a few kids, and then we'd march them back to school before noon," Krikorian says. "I don't know why people have just taken any kind of common sense and thrown it aside."

But in fact Krikorian does believe she knows what happened to these children. "For quite some time they kept insisting nothing ever happened, until they learned the rules of the game in therapy," she says. " 'Okay, let's pretend this happened, all right?' Let's just pretend. Let's pretend, how does that feel?' ... And they'd give them the anatomical dolls."

So she agrees, Krikorian says, that small children did not entirely invent the accounts that eventually forced her to close one of her preschools, at the Department of Social Services' orders, and spend what she said was $300,000 in legal fees to keep the other one open. "They weren't making up this kind of stuff," she says she believes. "They were being told it in the therapists' offices."

The offices might look like the interviewing room of Noel Plourdes, a licensed marriage and family counselor who was working with a local center for abused children when she began seeing children from the Manhattan Beach investigations. Plourdes is now in private practice, but her treatment room is a conventional arrangement of couches, carpeted floor and low shelves containing books, toys and a set of dolls designed so that removing the clothing reveals adult-proportioned genitalia. There has been controversy over the use of these dolls; their defenders say they allow children to demonstrate things that embarrass them or are beyond their vocabulary, and their critics say dolls like these, particularly if improperly used, are so startling and odd to a child that they invite fantasy play that can be misreported as actual disclosure.

But what disturbed her about the children she was seeing, Plourdes says -- what led her to believe some genuinely terrifying thing had happened to them -- was not their activity with the dolls. "A kid can fake a symptom or fake a disclosure one time -- it's much harder to do that for over a year," she says. "The fear would not go away. It would subside for a while, and then it would start up again. Sometimes children wouldn't be able to sleep at all, because they would be afraid they'd close their eyes and lose control, and somebody would be able to get them ... constant nightmares, fear of strangers, fear of people, fear of teachers, fear of people who looked like the perpetrators. Things that would just get in the way of everyday functioning."

Plourdes estimates that she saw 60 to 70 children from the Manhattan Beach investigations, most of them referred to her after initial evaluations elsewhere. She was not the principal therapist to the children reporting sexual abuse; there were about two dozen counselors or psychologists at work, most of them loosely linked through their experience with sexual abuse counseling and sometimes through connections to Children's Institute International, the treatment center where the therapist Kee MacFarlane had conducted many of the original controversial interviews with the children from the McMartin school.

What follows is an excerpt from one of those CII interview transcripts. The transcripts themselves are now barred by judicial order from public view, and this portion was entered into the record in the McMartin case after Raymond Buckey's attorney, obviously selecting a passage that would buttress his client's case, convinced the judge that the jury ought to hear it. So this is a loaded excerpt, but it is verbatim, although the child's name -- this is the 11-year-old boy referred to in yesterday's article as Child Witness Number Five -- has been deleted. The child is holding a Pac-Man puppet.

MacFarlane: Here's a hard question I don't know if you know the answer to. We'll see how smart you are, Pac-Man. Did you ever see anything come out of Mr. Ray's wiener? Do you remember that?

Child: (No response.)

MacFarlane: Can you remember back that far? We'll see how -- how good your brain is working today, Pac-Man.

(Child moves puppet around.)

MacFarlane: Is that a yes?

(Child nods puppet yes.)

MacFarlane: Well, you're smart. Now, let's see if we can figure out what it was. I wonder if you can point to something of what color it was.

(Child tries to pick up the pointer with the Pac-Man's puppet mouth.)

MacFarlane: Let me get your pen here. (MacFarlane puts a pointer in child's Pac-Man puppet mouth.)

Child: It was --

MacFarlane: Let's see what color is that.

(Child uses the Pac-Man's hand to point to the Pac-Man puppet.)

MacFarlane: Oh, you're pointing to yourself. That must be yellow.

(Child nods puppet yes.)

MacFarlane: You're smart to point to yourself. What did it feel like? Was it like water? Or like something else?

Child: Um, what?

MacFarlane: That stuff that came out. Let me try. I'll try a different question on you. We'll try to figure out what that stuff tastes like. We're going to try and figure out if it tastes good.

Child: He never did that to (child's name), I don't think.

MacFarlane: Oh. Well, Pac-Man, would you know what it tastes like? Would you think if it tastes good like candy, or sort of trying --

Child: I think it would taste like yukky ants.

MacFarlane: Yukky ants. Whoa. That would be kind of yukky. I don't think it would taste like -- you don't think it would taste like strawberries, or anything good?

Child: No.

MacFarlane: Oh. Think it would, sort of -- do you think that would be sticky, like sticky yukky ants?

Child: A little.

In children's therapy this is extremely new business, the practice of trying to elicit from children the details of acts that were scarcely mentioned 10 years ago, much less discussed on the evening news. What experience there was with child sexual abuse tended to come from children who had been molested by their fathers or some other trusted figure, and many of the techniques therapists adopted evolved from the assumption that these children both carried a terrible secret and faced intense pressure, once the secret was out, to take it all back -- to make the family whole again, for example, by insisting that the father had not really done the bad things after all.

Thus the puppets, the repeated questions, the praise for an answer perceived as disclosure -- much of the technique for which the Manhattan Beach therapists have been assailed grew out of efforts to help small children talk about the unmentionable. That they were therapists at all has complicated the debate over what the children finally said; therapists know how to make children comfortable, but the Manhattan Beach investigations helped suggest around the country how easy it was to confuse the job of the therapist with the job of the person who is simply supposed to find out what happened.

And by 1984 in Manhattan Beach, of course, child molestation was no longer unmentionable. Sexual molestation was talked about on television, in the newspapers, at social functions, and at large emotional meetings in which men and women gathered to exchange information. "We've got a real rumor mill going on here," says Lee Coleman, a psychiatrist who lives in Berkeley but has examined some of the transcripts and records in the McMartin case. "We've got cross-germination ... A lot of these kids were going to school with each other, talking to each other ... It's going between kid and kid, parent and parent. It's going back to the interview and back to the kids."

In the years since Raymond Buckey was arrested, Coleman has developed an active practice as a consultant and expert witness in cases that surfaced elsewhere in the country -- cases in which child molestation accusations were based at least in part on therapists' interviews with children. Coleman believes an enormous number of false accusations have emerged from these interviews, and he says he places much of the blame on therapists, whom he sees as crusaders less interested in the truth than in their campaign against child abuse. "I have spent five to six hundred hours watching and listening to these tapes around the country," Coleman says, "and the interviews in the McMartin case, in terms of the intense interrogations of these children, the manipulation and training of these children, are the worst."

Kee MacFarlane says she is unable to talk publicly while the McMartin case is in trial, but Children's Institute International Director Mary Emmons suggests that a therapist confronting a possibly abused child is put in the position of a cardiologist obliged by law and ethics to run every imaginable test on a patient whose heart may be failing. "If the defense is passing around excerpts from transcripts, you can be sure they're pulled out of context," she says. "The interviews were conducted in a way to enable the children to disclose if there was something to disclose ... We had kids that didn't say anything here, that got in the car and on the way home said, 'Mommy, is it really okay if I start to talk about this stuff?' and then they started to talk."

Into the Darkness

Raymond and Peggy McMartin Buckey, who are charged with and have pleaded innocent to 100 counts of child molestation, have now been on trial in downtown Los Angeles for 10 months. It will probably be late summer before the defense lawyers even begin presenting their case, so a verdict is still many months away.

When the verdict does come it will determine the Buckeys' future, but it will not explain what happened here. Some weeks after the child this article calls Jessie had begun describing to her parents the things she said people had done to her, Jessie's father looked at his daughter and said, "Well, if you were taken away from school, where did you go?"

He says he believed at that point that his child was affected at least in part by hysteria. He says he wanted very much to believe that. He says they got in his car, and that his 4-year-old daughter directed him on an elaborate route, one that included doglegs around noncontiguous streets, until they reached a group of houses he had no memory of having visited or passed before, which he says Jessie told him was one of the places she had been taken.

Jessie's father says he did not get out to explore with his daughter, because he had come to believe the molesters might be violent, but that he called the sheriff's investigators to give them the location. He says an investigator told him afterward that they had found something there, something Jessie's mother says she saw in an investigator's photograph, and which the therapist says she saw too, both in the photograph and also up close in the investigators' Manhattan Beach office. Both the mother and the therapist describe the object as looking like a wire dressmaker's dummy, with pieces of cloth hanging from it and what the therapist describes as a peculiar pulley-like rigging at one arm; Jessie's mother says it was dark and that it frightened her to look at it, and both she and her husband believe it is a photograph of what their daughter called the rock-throwing machine.

"And from that," Jessie's father says, "I had no choice but to believe."

From August 1983 on, two criminal trials materialized from child molestation allegations around Manhattan Beach. One was the McMartin case, and the other was the trial of a 17-year-old teacher's aide at a school called Manhattan Ranch, a trial that ended in a hung jury.

Nothing else gave legal weight to the accounts of families like Jessie's. The sheriff's task force, the investigatory group formed after molestation reports began spreading beyond the McMartin school, disbanded at the end of 1985; the investigators contacted now refuse to discuss Manhattan Beach. At a small branch of the state Department of Social Services, clerks will make available upon request the manila files of the schools DSS closed during the Manhattan Beach investigations, but those are empty of anything that might be called evidence, since the files are purged before public view and in any case DSS can base school-closure requests solely on what it views as serious allegations.

And the prosecutors working with the task force say the evidence they saw would finally support no additional cases -- that the children were too young, or their stories too inconsistent, or their parents too reluctant to submit them to legal proceedings. One of the prosecutors says he remembers something about a dummy, but that whatever it was, it was not enough to shape a case that would stand up in court.

So Jessie's mother says she has seen the photograph, but she does not have it. She has no legal indictment. No adult witness will corroborate the things her daughter described. She does not have the needles her child talked about, or the gun that killed the dog and cat. Three years after their daughter's first visit to the therapist, the only evidence Jessie's parents can touch is the black journal they wrote in when she came to them to say she was remembering again.

And what her parents believe, what many men and women who live around Manhattan Beach still believe, is that people who worked in preschools were able to terrorize children, to sexually molest them and take pornographic pictures of them and incorporate them into ritual behavior having something to do with blood and perhaps in some cases with the mutilation of actual infants. They believe these people may have worked in concert with each other, and that most of them escaped prosecution, and that this is so not only in Southern California but also in enough other communities that there is no point in trying to move away to escape it.

That is one explanation for what happened after Raymond Buckey was arrested for child molestation in Manhattan Beach.

Here is another: that a single woman, a woman of great tenacity and deteriorating mental stability, was able through her 1983 accusation against Buckey to reach enough people and generate enough panic that an entire community took up a massive crusade against imaginary demons, and that small children caught in the fervor of this crusade came to believe the demons were real.

Here is another: that some children were molested in Manhattan Beach, molested by preschool teachers or by others, and that the disclosing and spreading of those children's reports took place in an atmosphere of such uncontainable and self-feeding alarm that both children and the adults listening to them lost the capacity to sort the imagined from the actual -- so that what some of the children feared was real, and what some of the children feared was a kind of waking nightmare that the climate around them had crystallized into some approximation of the real.

Nobody knows.

That is not quite true; if there were child molesters, then they know. Everybody else believes, a word that is used often around Manhattan Beach and still suggests the revelatory lucidity of religious faith. In conversations with these parents it seems sometimes that listening to the children around them must have made entirely plain what their response would have to be:

They could decide their own children were lying or confusing reality with invention, and doing so not just once but in interview after interview, and with details and stories the parents knew were being repeated by other children in other houses and other therapy rooms.

Or the parents could decide to live with uncertainty, with the possibility that their children might or might not have been brutalized and that certain troublesome recollections might or might not mean anything -- the bad dreams, the vaginitis, the fear of going back to preschool.

Or they could believe the children, and once believing treat them for recovery from a real trauma, not an imaginary one. Two UCLA psychologists are at work now on a study of 81 children who made molestation reports during the Manhattan Beach preschool investigations, and although the psychologists describe the molestations as "alleged," the study has no special provisions, aside from the examination of any available records, for determining what was actual experience and what was not -- for establishing with any finality, once the psychologists have assessed the children's reactions, exactly what the children are reacting to.

Jill Waterman, one of the psychologists directing the UCLA study, says preliminary and so far incomplete findings are suggesting a comparatively high level of fear in the children who reported molestation. "Some of the highest fear in these children was fear of the Devil, and some other basically supernatural things," she says. The Manhattan Beach school superintendent says administrators have taken seriously some parents' anxiety about the use of Halloween costumes around their children; school staff members have been offered special training on coping with children who may have been molested, and in one small salute to bewildering times, a maintenance crew put glass windows in all the school principals' doors and then repositioned the secretaries' desks so an adult and child in the office might always be visible from outside.

And there is anecdotal material, now, about Manhattan Beach children who are aggressive or disturbed about sexuality or a concern to their teachers as the children grow older. But every school system in the country harbors students who fit that description, and nothing so far sums up with any clarity the emotional state of the children whose parents believe they were molested in preschools here, children whose ages would now start at 6 and run all the way up to the late teens, if the worst of the suggested scenarios were true and the McMartin family members really were molesting children at their preschool as far back as the early 1970s.

The child this article calls Jessie is now in second grade, and toward the end of last year she told her parents that she thought she would be seeing her therapist for the last time. Both her therapist and her parents describe her as an extremely bright child, sensitive about others' feelings; she still has nightmares, her mother says, but is no longer overwhelmed by fright. They say she has not forgotten the things she told them, and that they are not urging her to, since her parents think she might want to bring some civil action when she comes of age.

Her parents are not sure exactly what form that action might take, and they are not sure either what they will say when their daughter asks them, as they think she will, what the justice system did with the preschool children around Manhattan Beach. Claudia Krikorian wonders about that too, and so do the five women who spent 2 1/2 years fighting accusations in the McMartin case before the charges against them were suddenly dismissed.

If there is a single common conviction anywhere in the Manhattan Beach preschool investigations, in fact, it is this: that the criminal justice system has managed in the end to satisfy almost no one. Five hundred miles from Manhattan Beach, in the state capital of Sacramento, Assistant State Attorney General Steve White says that what happened after Raymond Buckey's arrest has offered communities facing multiple child molestation reports an open text on the possibilities for disaster.

"These were classic uncharted waters," says White. "No matter how you fit into this, you have to see this McMartin case as a painful and abysmal failure of the criminal justice system."

Certainly something has been learned from Manhattan Beach, White says. Now they know, in other cities, that one does not send to 200 families a letter instructing parents to ask their own children whether somebody molested them at school. Now they know, in other cities, that there are enormously controversial ways to interview children who may have been molested, particularly if those interviews are meant to feed information to a legal system that requires even 6-year-old witnesses to undergo repeated interrogation and cross-examination.

And they know now about what former Manhattan Beach police sergeant Jim Noble calls "parent management," which is the nearly impossible process of trying to contain dozens and then scores and then hundreds of men and women who must simultaneously be calmed, kept informed, and restrained from talking to each other and inflaming their own fears. "Nobody had ever done a molestation case of this size," Noble says. "Anywhere."

Noble says other police departments ought to know something else, too, which is that a case like this will eat them alive. "We're damned by both sides," he says. Noble believes the children, but he is not sure any longer exactly what that means; at one point in the Manhattan Beach investigations he flew to South Dakota, because police had learned that after his initial arrest Raymond Buckey spent two weeks visiting his sister at Wind Cave National Park. The police thought Buckey might have taken film or photographs with him. It seemed to Noble that if Buckey had gone to a cave he might have hidden pictures inside it, but when he arrived at the park he learned that the cave was 51 miles long, and winding, and filled with so many alternate corridors and passages into the darkness that Noble gave up and went home.