More than $2 million of taxpayers' money and nine months of court time have been consumed, yet the largest sexual molestation case in the nation's history is still a year from coming to trial.

Prosecutors say they have 41 children aged 5 to 11 ready to tell of widespread abuse, including filmed molestations, sodomy and threats to kill their parents if they spoke out.

Medical authorities say vaginal or anal scarring indicates sexual abuse of 32 of the witnesses from the McMartin Pre-School in the little seaside community of Manhattan Beach.

But a 1978 California Supreme Court ruling that indicted defendants may insist on preliminary hearings has forced prosecutors and their youthful witnesses to endure months of testimony long before the jury process may even begin.

It is one more grievance certain to be hurled at the state high court's embattled liberal majority, threatened with defeat in a confirmation vote next year.

The McMartin case has spurred much of the national media's recent examination of child abuse and pushed the state legislature to pass a controversial provision for closed-circuit television testimony by child witnesses. It also has revitalized state Sen. Ed Davis' long struggle for a state constitutional amendment repealing the 1978 court decision.

In the meantime, the expense and boredom and endless interruption of dozens of lives continue. Recent proceedings, in which one child mistakenly identified a film star and the city attorney-elect as being among his tormentors, underlined the growing difficulties and uncertain future of the case.

The daily grind may be wearing down some participants. After hours of exhaustive cross-examination, one 10-year-old boy, the ninth child to appear at the preliminary hearing, was excused most of one day recently with dizzy spells. Municipal Judge Aviva K. Bobb recessed court the next day because the school's founder, Virginia McMartin, 77, had medical appointments.

When the ordeal began last summer, Lael Rubin, the deputy district attorney heading the prosecution, said she wanted to move immediately to trial. But defense attorneys insisted on a preliminary hearing on molestation charges then lodged only against Raymond Buckey, 26, McMartin's grandson.

As more children who had attended McMartin began telling about the school, Buckey's mother, his sister, three female teachers and McMartin were added to the list of defendants. Today, Buckey and his mother remain in jail while the others are free on bail.

Children said they were sometimes photographed while being molested, although no such photographs have been found. They said they were told that their parents would be harmed if word got out. As a warning, they said, they were forced to watch animals being killed and mutilated.

Prosecutors charged the seven defendants with 208 counts of molestation and conspiracy. Now some counts may be appealed because of a flaw in legislative revision to the state penal code last year and differing interpretations of the statute of limitations.

Parents continue to anguish over their children's ordeals on the witness stand, lawyers have expressed concern that children's memories may be fading and defendants have spent whole days in court with little chance of returning to work or seeing the case resolved before 1987.

Some children, Rubin said, will have to testify three times, including the initial grand jury appearance. The delay and repetition, she said, have "a tremendous effect, a negative effect on our witnesses."

The preliminary hearing "is a free shot at the government's witnesses," said Gary Mullen, the Davis adviser working to overturn the 1978 court decision. "You get to try to break them up, shake them up. How difficult is it for an adult attorney to trip up a 5-year-old?"

Defense attorneys cross-examine each child for days and have said they plan to call several defense witnesses, including medical experts and other teachers.

Ordinarily, the defense does not devote so much time to a preliminary hearing, but the attorneys said they need to rehearse for the trial and protect themselves in case the trial jury sees only videotapes of the children's testimony at the hearings.

Walter R. Urban, attorney for former teacher Betty Raidor, 65, said he considers it likely that the trial judge will grant prosecution requests to have some witnesses miss the trial. The preliminaries may offer his only opportunity to pinpoint inconsistencies in their stories, he said.

"Each child has contradicted other children's testimony. Each child has contradicted their own previous statements. Each child has contradicted their own testimony on the stand," Urban said.

He blamed the charges on hysteria throughout the tight-knit beach community after one parent made an accusation. In his view, distraught parents, police and therapists planted suggestions in the impressionable minds of children, turning fantasy into seeming fact.

Forrest Latiner, attorney for Buckey's sister Peggy Ann, 29, cited a videotape played recently as a crucial element in the defense. A therapist at Children's Institute International, where many of the witnesses first told their stories, was shown coaxing details from a reluctant 8-year-old boy.

The therapist is seen telling the child, "We have a few kids from the McMartin School, and they have a few yucky secrets from that school." She explains that she is not going to ask him questions but have a bird puppet on her hand ask questions of the Pac-Man puppet he holds.

"If anybody asks who tells, I'll say the puppets told me, and nobody will find out," she says.

She brings up various forms of sexual abuse that "other kids have told us about."

At one point, the child has his puppet say, "He [Buckey] never did that to [the boy], I don't think." The therapist gently persists, and the child eventually indicates that the act occurred.

Latiner blamed the Institute staff for putting ideas in witnesses' heads. A professional therapist familiar with the case, who asked not to be identified, strongly disagreed.

The therapists' technique, she said, "is the only way you can get the truth from children who have been that traumatized. They were told their mommies would be killed if they talked. They want to forget about it, deny it ever happened."