By: LINDA GOLDSTON, Mercury News Staff Writer
Four years after major day care cases burst into the headlines, the sexual and ritual abuse of preschool children remains one of the most baffling and controversial crimes in America, experts conceded Thursday.
The experts themselves appeared split on whether the children's stories of satanic ceremonies and rituals involving urine, feces and blood actually occurred and how much the children were tricked into believing.
"In a lot of these cases, sexual abuse is one of the least horrible things that happens to these children," said Kenneth V. Lanning, the FBI's top abuse expert.
''We need to start turning to trauma experts in these cases."
The discussion was part of the National Symposium on Child Victimization, which has attracted an estimated 3,000 law enforcement and therapy professionals to the four-day conference here.
Sponsored by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and Children's Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the symposium will conclude Saturday.
And although the several workshops on ritual abuse scheduled for the symposium reflect the growing concern of many professionals, the FBI's Lanning cautioned against believing everything the children are saying.
''People are getting away with molesting children because we can't prove they're murdering people in satanic sacrifices," he said.
Lanning said he has no doubt that ritual crimes occur, but stressed that he does not believe that such abuse is widespread.
He went so far as to suggest that some of the more bizarre aspects of the allegations may have come from books and movies on satanism.
That view was challenged by several therapists in the audience, who said they are treating ritual abuse victims, and by the woman who examined many of the children in the McMartin Pre-School case.
''We need to consider that some of this may be things children are deliberately exposed to so they will sound crazy," said Kee MacFarlane, director of the Child Sexual Abuse Center at Children's Institute International in Los Angeles.
MacFarlane gained fame as "the puppet lady" who used dolls and puppets to help children in the McMartin case tell their stories in the early days of the case four years ago. The trial is still under way.
''We must not close our minds to any explanation," said MacFarlane, who said she believes that some children in these cases were drugged and may have been exposed to special effects to help damage their credibility.
Both experts said that fear is the primary force used by the abusers to try to keep children from talking. Children in these cases, for example, have been told that their parents and their pets would be killed if they told anyone.
Until more answers are known, "ultimately it may be a lot more important to child sexual abuse victims that we believe the children rather than count the prosecutions," MacFarlane said, referring to the small number of cases of all types of sexual abuse that actually make it to court.
The disagreement over ritual abuse and how to handle the cases comes at a time when treatment experts are still struggling to devise some therapy that will rehabilitate sex offenders.
At a morning panel discussion on the treatment of offenders, three of the country's leading experts said very little progress has been made, but they cautioned against not treating child molesters.
''As our detection methods improve, it won't be possible to build prisons fast enough to handle them all," said Dr. Richard Laws, project director of the Florida Mental Health Institute.
Saying the sex-offender treatment field is only about 30 years old, Laws and the other speakers said that only now is research starting to provide some of the answers about what offenders respond to treatment.
Recidivism for child molesters released from prison ranges from 10 percent to 60 percent.
Until better treatment results can be achieved, "it is imperative that we overcome our resistance to treating child molesters, not for the sake of the offenders but for the sake of the victims," said Dr. Robert Prentky, director of research for the Massachusetts Treatment Center and Department of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
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Last Updated: 26 Nov 95 -- Mark Pritchard