HERMOSA BEACH — Like most people who live outside the South Bay, Patricia Cooper got her first impression of the St. Cross Episcopal Church Pre-School two months ago from news reports about a child involved in the McMartin PreSchool molestation case.
The 10-year-old boy, a former McMartin pupil, testified that he and other children witnessed black-robed people sacrifice animals during candle-lit rituals at the church six years ago. Sheriff's deputies have been investigating St. Cross ever since.
Last week, Cooper got her second impression of St. Cross--this time from inside the preschool's nurseries, on its playgrounds and, ultimately, from behind its director's desk.
Cooper, 55, who has been director of an Episcopal preschool in Downey for the past five years, became interim director of St. Cross last week. She assumed the post on Monday when the preschool reopened after voluntarily closing for two weeks because of the sheriff's investigation.
"You have to maintain some rationality and be calm in the face of a horrifying situation or the possibility of a horrifying situation," Cooper said during an interview at the preschool. "You can't hurt innocent people who are caught up in this for no fault of their own. You are innocent until proven guilty."
But Cooper acknowledged that the McMartin case and publicity surrounding child abuse has made innocent people wary.
"The fallout from the McMartin case has been amazing," she said, sitting on a bench outside her office as organ music from the nearby chapel mixed with the laughter of children on the playground.
"Now everything that anyone does with children is colored by it. In cities clear out of the area, parents are more cautious about bringing their children to amusement parks, to the post office, to the grocery store. Now you almost have to stop before turning in line and saying, 'What a cute child,' because of the fear that a parent might say, 'That's it! Call the police!' "
Cooper, a Downey resident who has two grown children, succeeds Vita Pinedo, a Hermosa Beach grandmother who resigned as director this month citing personal and health reasons. Pinedo, who had led the preschool since it opened 10 years ago, said pressures surrounding the investigation had become unbearable. Cooper will serve as interim director for several months while the St. Cross board of directors searches for a permanent replacement.
Cooper arrives in the South Bay at a time when six preschools remain closed because of child molestation allegations and a widely publicized preliminary hearing continues for seven former staff members of the closed McMartin school. The McMartin defendants are charged with a total of 207 counts of child molestation and one combined count of conspiracy.
Father Jack D. Eales, rector of St. Cross and Cooper's new boss, has characterized the preschool profession in the South Bay as a "child care caldron" replete with pressures that are "hideously unbelievable." Before launching his search for an interim director two weeks ago, Eales acknowledged that the task would not be easy. Last week, he described Cooper as the answer to his prayers.
Cooper, who had never visited the preschool before agreeing to serve as its interim director, arrived aware of the problems at St. Cross and in the South Bay as a whole, she said. The strength of her Christian faith and a compelling drive to succeed led her to the new post, she said.
14 Years Experience
"If you are a Christian and someone asks you for help, it behooves you to respond," she said. "With 14 years of experience in the preschool area, seven years before that working with children, and all of my schooling, I think I can help out. If you don't say no to things, you really learn a bunch of things."
Cooper, who has been divorced for three years after 33 years of marriage, describes herself as a career-minded woman. In 1983, at the age of 54, she earned a master's degree in private school administration at the University of San Francisco. Four years earlier, just before her 50th birthday, she received a bachelor's degree in psychology and child development from California State University, Long Beach.
A buoyant yet reflective woman, Cooper speaks about child care issues with both authority and sensitivity. Her mind focuses intensely on questions, analyzing their implications and subtleties. Occasionally, she breaks her train of thought, bursting into laughter or a soft giggle as she recites an anecdote or scolds herself for being too pensive.
During her first week at St. Cross, Cooper has felt welcome by the staff, parents and children, she said. But the unspoken anxiety--the pressure to which Eales and Vita Pinedo pointed--were also evident, she said.
Hesitant to Hug
When several of the 108 children who attend the preschool and day care center rushed to greet her with open arms, for example, Cooper reached out and embraced them, but not without hesitation, she said.
"They wanted to call me Mrs. Pat, just like they had called Vita Mrs. Vita, and give me a big hug," she said. "I don't want to deprive the child or myself of the touching. You need that. But there are also those times when you are thinking, 'If I someone sees me giving the child a hug, what are they going to think?' "
Nonetheless, Cooper said she is confident that the anxiety will fade and she will be able to function in much the same way she has in Downey. Already she has instituted some administrative reforms, centralizing the payment procedures and compiling new directories of pupils.
She has also met with members of the St. Cross Pre-School Parents Assn., held meetings with the 15-member staff, and even made a run for supplies when the school ran out of paper cups.
"I have definite feelings about these people that they would not--and could not--be anything but very caring adults," she said of the staff. "When it comes to the bottom line I know that everything will be all right here."