n February 1984, we disclosed that the Justice Department was about to spend $734,371 to count the number of times children were depicted in cartoons and photos in Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, and somehow to calculate the effect these depictions would have on the readers. Unabashed by exposure of this endeavor, the department went ahead with the study.

We believe child pornography is despicable, but this study, in our opinion, was a boondoggle.

Last year, when the study was finally submitted to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, department officials decided the quality of the research was so questionable that it wasn't worth publishing. So they spiked it.

Alerted by anti-smut groups, Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.) charged that the Justice Department was suppressing the results of the study. He demanded that it be published.

Verne Speirs, acting chief of the juvenile justice office, refused, so Armstrong put a personal "hold" on Speirs' confirmation as chief of the office. The senator and the bureaucrat met recently and worked out a compromise.

Armstrong agreed to withdraw his objection to Speirs' appointment, and Speirs agreed to make the controversial study available through the juvenile justice clearinghouse. If someone wants to publish the report, that will be permitted; it just won't have the Justice Department's imprimatur.

Our reporter Gary Clouser has obtained an executive summary of the report from its author, Judith Reisman, Ph.D. A onetime songwriter for Captain Kangaroo and a research professor at American University here at the time of the study, Reisman now heads the Institute for Media Education in Arlington. She declined to comment on the Armstrong-Speirs quarrel.

Among the conclusions in the summary is the statement that "it is not unlikely that some vulnerable juvenile and adult receivers may fuse child depictions with arousal to sex and/or arousal to violence." The summary gave no indication of any evidence to substantiate this claimed effect on the magazines' readers.

Reisman's research tallied "child imagery in the context of erotica/pornography" in the magazines from 1954 to 1984. Cartoons were counted as well as photographs because they "circumvent readers' resistance by humorously trivializing existing taboos," Reisman said in the summary.

She said her research showed that "children had been extensively sexualized in popular erotica/pornography." One purpose of her study was to provide the public with information for debate "without requiring exposure to primary sources" -- that is, without having to read the magazines.

In a letter last November to American University, Speirs explained why he opposed publishing the Reisman report. He acknowledged that it was a "very ambitious effort to conduct a complex study, in terms of its scope and the ambiguous nature of the concepts studied." He added, however, that "multiple serious flaws in the methodology significantly reduce the definitiveness and usefulness of the findings."