In the past week, the Finders have been called both commune and cult. In police accounts, court documents and the news media, the secretive Washington-based group has been accused of child abuse and neglect, along with a sometimes nasty type of pranksterism. Simultaneously, the Finders are portrayed as accomplished academics immersed in a 20-year-old social experiment.

Police, cult-watch groups and reporters have scrambled for information -- with only mixed success -- about the Finders while two members of the group sit in a Tallahassee, Fla., jail cell, facing misdemeanor charges of neglecting six unkempt children found traveling with them in a van.

Yesterday's developments in the case of the unusual commune only exacerbated the confusion that official statements and news accounts have engendered:Virginia state police used a backhoe to dig up a 30-foot-by-12-foot plot of land at a Finders-owned farm in rural Madison County. The police, who were responding to tips that they would find bodies buried there, found nothing. "The investigation is becoming routine," said police spokesman Charles Vaughan. A child abuse expert hired by Florida's social service agency examined the six Finders children and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to say whether they had been sexually abused. Nathan Greenberg, an Illinois psychologist, said he found no evidence of recent physical harm. Tallahassee police dropped their description of the Finders as a satanic cult, but stood by their statement that two of the children appear to have been sexually abused. Tallahassee police continued to hold Finders members Michael Holwell, 23, and Douglas Ammerman, 27, on misdemeanor charges of child neglect and resisting arrest without violence. And police in Florida filed an affidavit in which one of the children is quoted as saying that Finders leader Marion Pettie "tells everyone what to do. He is in charge. We kids slept outside and the mommies slept inside . . . . Mr. Pettie weans the kids from moms." The whereabouts of the 66-year-old Pettie, the central figure in the group, remained a secret yesterday. Former Finders who have been in touch with the group said he is in daily telephone contact with the group.

The Finders' unorthodox approach to child raising, a communal upbringing virtually free of supervision, is the focus of the public debate over a group that has been aggressively private.

Within hours after police in Florida were tipped to the Finders van Feb. 4, and immediately after Washington police raided two Finders properties here, news accounts and official statements percolated with talk of abuse, neglect and satanic rituals. The latter accusations were bolstered by the discoveries of a circle of stones in the backyard of the Finders' W Street house and of photographs showing members and their children wearing white robes while slaughtering goats at the group's Virginia farm.

But as with all matters involving the group Pettie founded in the late 1960s as an experiment in communal life, things may not be as they seem. Supporters and critics of the group now agree that the strange rites are an example of Pettie's love for playing games, rather than an expression of pagan beliefs.

"Those goats were vicious," said a former Finders member who asked not to be identified. "The group decided to eat them rather than keep them as pets. To then create a dramatic scene with robes and so on was to impress the kids of the seriousness of killing an animal."

District and Florida police, after initially using words such as "cult" and "rituals" to describe the Finders, have softened their rhetoric. The Tallahassee police said they based their early language on District police accounts. But District police announced Monday that they had no evidence indicating that the Finders had satanic beliefs.

As investigations into the Finders continue, the evidence does not fit neatly into categories of black or white.

Some examples of the gray areas:

Members have argued that the group is being unfairly maligned. At the same time, the group has failed to cooperate with police in Florida. Tallahassee police yesterday issued a public appeal to Robert Gardner Terrell, a Finders member who has given numerous media interviews in recent days, to contact Florida authorities. Terrell said the mothers of the six children have returned to Washington, but aren't heading to Florida any time soon.

"We don't think we've done anything wrong and as of right now, we're not planning to defend ourselves," Terrell said yesterday. In a separate interview, he commented that "when you have a storm raging and your children are stuck on an island, sometimes the best thing is not to cross the raging waters but to wait until the storm dies down."

Tallahassee police spokesman Scott Hunt said: "This has probably gone far enough. We need to have face-to-face contact with these people."

Finders members and former members concede that they have peppered people they consider to be opponents with nasty, even abusive letters and telephone calls. That kind of behavior has gotten group members in trouble with the law, but their defenders say it is simply another case of the public's misunderstanding a group that relishes its position on the fringe of society.

A former Finders member said that members of the group used calls and letters in a "campaign that you could call harassment" against Arlington County juvenile court Judge Andrew Ferrari in 1983 when Ferrari ruled that a child of the former member should be separated from the family and placed in a group home.

Ferrari said he received calls at his office and home from several members of the group who argued that the child was being deprived of his freedom.

"They didn't threaten me," the judge said. "The attitude was, 'How could you be so unconstitutional?' "

In another case, a lawyer in Culpeper, Va., obtained a court order preventing the Finders from harassing him about a divorce case in which he represented a former member. The lawyer, John Davies, said Finders had used letters and phone calls to disconcert him.

In a third case, a former member of the group said the Finders slashed his tires after he rejected their teachings.

A former member offered by Terrell as an expert on the Finders confirmed that the group does "act as a mirror on behavior against us. We fight fire with humor. Members would call the judge and say, 'You better take good care of that kid or he'll come back some day and go after you.' Now that might seem harassing to a negative person, but I find it really very funny."

Many of the group's ways can be explained in a series of aphorisms that Pettie and group members use to describe their philosophy. "Don't explain, don't complain," they say about their secrecy. "Jokes and pokes" and "brevity and levity" are the slogans they use to explain their passion for humor.

Meanwhile the Finders have decided to talk to the press -- a move one former member called "tantamount to throwing your religion out the window" -- but have resisted dealing with the government authorities they have long considered anathema.

"It's not safe to be a communal group in this society," said a former Finder who lived with the group for four years and remains close to Pettie.

Staff writer Victoria Churchville contributed to this report.