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Child Sex-Abuse Issues Still Stymie the Courts. Nation's oldest criminal trial drags on; but complex questions remain unresolved. MCMARTIN CASE

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Others, however, think the depth of the problem is overstated for almost the same reason. Allen McMahon, a legal adviser to Victims of Child Abuse Laws Inc., a national group formed by parents who say they were falsely accused of sexual and other abuse, argues too many molestation charges are still unfounded. One reason for this, he contends, is the growing number of false accusations arising out of child-custody battles.

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``Unfortunately, a lot of people take the attitude that if you are accused of child abuse, it must have happened,'' he says.

On one point, however, there is more unanimity: The incidence of sexual abuse at day-care centers and preschools is relatively rare, unlike many headlines in the early 1980s suggested. Recent work done by David Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire suggests less than 1 percent of all sexual abuse incidents occur at day-care centers.

Whether McMartin turns out to be one of them will take more time to tell. Even though the trial is two years old - and follows an 18-month preliminary hearing - it will still be months before the jury gets to render its verdict on Raymond Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey.

The Buckeys, now free on bail after spending several years in jail, are charged with 65 counts of child molesting and conspiracy involving 11 children who attended their family-run nursery school. Conviction would mean life in prison.

The Byzantine case has taken numerous twists since it began in 1983, when a Manhattan Beach mother complained that her 2-year-old son was molested at his preschool.

Five women, plus the two Buckeys, were originally indicted by a grand jury in 1984 on 135 counts of molestation, sodomy, rape, and other allegations. Charges against five of the defendants were later dropped, because the district attorney said the evidence was ``incredibly weak.''

Last year 35 counts against the remaining two defendants were dropped by the prosecution.

At present, the defense is six months into presenting its case. It follows 14 months of testimony from prosecution witnesses, including nine children who said they were molested and medical experts who said they could tell the molestation had occurred.

The defense has put former McMartin teachers on the stand who have testified nothing improper happened. A number of witnesses remain to be heard from, including, probably, the defendants themselves.

The case could go on into 1990. Because of the length, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders worries that a shrinking jury could lead to a mistrial.

Four of the original 16 jurors and alternates have been let go so far, leaving only two to spare. The judge recently decided to limit the rest of the case to only the most ``critical'' testimony and eliminated eight defense witnesses.

``The jury has about reached its limits,'' the judge said in a recent interview. ``I want them to be free of this case by 1990.''

Others would have liked to have been free of it a long time ago. The case, whatever the outcome, has disrupted the lives of the alleged victims and perpetrators, as well as their families and friends, the lawyers and witnesses. The court, too, has been affected, from the jurors who have been given special seats for their comfort, to the judge who says it has had the effect of holding him ``captive.''

``The case has poisoned everyone who has come in contact with it,'' says Judge Pounders, who has expanded his jogging regimen, taken up weightlifting, and is refurbishing his house to help keep his mind off the case.