HERMOSA BEACH — St. Cross Episcopal Church has extended Easter vacation at its preschool from one week to two so the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department can intensify an inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse at the preschool, church and law enforcement officials have announced.
Meanwhile, church officials have accepted the resignation of Vita Pinedo, who had served as director of the preschool since it opened in 1975. The Rev. Jack D. Eales, minister of the church, said the preschool's board of directors will use the two-week recess to search for an acting director.
Sheriff's investigators said in a prepared statement that Pinedo had resigned for "personal and health reasons" and that their inquiry has been conducted with the full cooperation of Pinedo, Eales and other church and preschool officials.
The statement said that investigators would use the extended Easter vacation to "effectively investigate this matter without any undo disruption to the children, families and staff from the school."
While sheriff's deputies declined to comment on the investigation beyond the prepared statement, Eales said deputies told him that they hope to complete their investigation by the end of the vacation.
The St. Cross Pre-School has been the subject of a "fact-finding inquiry" by sheriff's investigators since early February, when a child involved in the McMartin Pre-School child molestation case testified that he and other children witnessed the sacrifice of animals in candle-lit ceremonies at the church six years ago. The boy said the rituals involved unidentified black-robed people who sometimes wore masks.
"The pressures on all of us in the South Bay today--parents, children and especially those in need of or delivering child care services--are hideously unbelievable," Eales said in announcing the vacation extension and Pinedo's resignation to the congregation last Sunday.
'Child Care Caldron'
"As most of you know, in addition to Vita's (Pinedo) care and nurture of the preschool, she also cares for a nearly blind and invalid 93-year-old father at home. To put it bluntly, if not medically, her doctor advised her if she wants to be around to care for her dad she had to get out of the child care caldron. Now," he said.
Pinedo said this week that the demands of caring for her father combined with the pressures surrounding the investigation of the school left her no choice but to resign. "The pressure and all has been getting to me," she said. "I know it is a rough time for everyone and it seems somewhat suspicious, but it had to be done."
In his sermon last Sunday, Eales said that he had asked the sheriff's department to intensify and conclude its inquiry so that the "positive atmosphere of Christ's loving name and presence" at the preschool "is as far above suspicion as possible given our current community concerns."
Meanwhile, members of the preschool board of directors met Tuesday night to discuss potential candidates for Pinedo's job, a position Eales hopes to fill by the end of next week so the preschool can reopen on April 15.
Last weekend about 100 parents of children who attend the preschool's day-care center, preschool programs and kindergarten classes met to discuss Pinedo's departure and the progress of the sheriff's inquiry.
Ken Arledge, one of three directors of the St. Cross Church Pre-School Parents Assn., said the meeting was called to "separate fact from rumor" and to give parents the opportunity to share their thoughts.
"We want a thorough and complete investigation to get all the facts out," Arledge said, "but nobody knows anybody directly connected with the school that has a problem with the school. There is not even a suspicion that there was misconduct."
Arledge, who has two children at the preschool, said he knows of no parents who have withdrawn their children from the preschool because of the sheriff's inquiry.
"The general response from parents is one of anger," he said. "Why are they doing this? Why can't we get on with life?"
A spokeswoman from the state Department of Social Services said the preschool was first licensed in 1975 to accommodate 22 children. Last year, the license was expanded to include 90 children, the spokeswoman said.
Eales said that while no more than 90 children are at the preschool at one time, there are 108 pupils, some of them part time. He said about 75% of the children come from families outside the parish.
"The surprising thing is that this has tended to bring the congregation together," Eales said. "They are very supportive of our ministry and our programs. They feel this is just nonsense."
In February, when the former McMartin pupil testified about the alleged rituals at St. Cross, defense attorneys told reporters that police investigations had not found any traces of blood at the church and that caretakers at the church had never found any animal remains.
Claims by former McMartin pupils that they witnessed similar rituals and animal killings in a vacant lot adjacent to the McMartin Pre-school, however, prompted an archeological firm working for investigators to begin excavating the lot in Manhattan Beach this week .
Scientific Resources Survey Inc. began digging at the site on Monday, a task that is expected to continue into next week.
Although no charges have been filed in connection with the allegations, some children have testified that they were forced to witness ritualistic torturing and killing of animals in the field.
The excavation is under way as a preliminary hearing continues for seven former staff members of the closed McMartin school who are charged with 207 counts of child molestation and one combined count of conspiracy.