When Judy Webb strolled out of the Mira Costa High School auditorium last week with several of her girlfriends at her side, the 11th grader from Redondo Beach had just completed an unusual assignment for her U.S. history class.
She had helped make South Bay history.
For just about an hour last Friday morning, Webb and several hundred other students joined state and local officials, clergymen and parents of children involved in several South Bay preschool molestation cases in an unprecedented celebration of what one official called "the turning of anger and hurt into something positive."
The observance had been called at the Manhattan Beach high school to recognize members of the Children's Civil Rights Fund who had lobbied successfully for state legislation to aid in the prosecution of child sex-abuse cases. The fund, a political action committee formed last year by parents of children involved in South Bay molestation cases, played a key role in winning votes for Senate Bill 46, according to its author, Sen. Art Torres (D-Pasadena).
The legislation, signed by Gov. George Deukmejian last weekend, allows certain children under age 10 to testify outside court on closed-circuit television in child-abuse cases. Defense attorneys in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, in which seven former teachers are charged with 208 counts of molestation and conspiracy, believe the new law is unconstitutional. But parents, local law enforcement officials and social workers who deal with child abuse victims have rallied behind the disputed statute, proclaiming it a historic form of protection for abused children.
Opponents of the legislation, which was extensively amended and rewritten to address several objections, fear that it deprives accused molesters of the constitutional right to confront their accusers. But some prosecutors, including those involved in the McMartin case, say the law opens the courtroom door to children who have been intimidated into silence by defendants.
At Mira Costa, enactment of the legislation offered a needed respite for parents, friends and others who have been embroiled in South Bay child molestation cases for more than a year. And it provided the symbolic setting for a meeting of young and old, as parents and public officials implored the new generation to draw a lesson from the tragedies of the past year.
"We all wanted to see something happen about this," said Webb, a half-dozen of her teen-age friends nodding in agreement. "It is important to us. When our teacher asked us if we wanted to come, we all said yes. This has affected everyone in the community."
"Everyone worked so hard and it paid off," added Jennifer Wolf, an 11th grader from Manhattan Beach. "We all know a lot of families involved in this. We all grew up here."
The Mira Costa rally, dubbed a "Salute to Citizens' Action," included a series of speeches by state and local politicians, the presentation of proclamations to the Children's Civil Rights Fund, and a continuous flow of accolades to parents and politicians responsible for the legislation. Everyone spoke of "history in the making" and of the role South Bay residents have played in salvaging something positive from the hellish preschool experiences of the past year.
Christina Crawford, a Los Angeles County child services commissioner and the author of "Mommy Dearest," a firsthand account of child abuse, encouraged members of the fund to continue as "guardians of the truth of the future."
Crawford explained how hard it is for children and adults to confront the issue of child abuse, particularly when they have been victims. "For some it creates such anxiety and guilt, they would rather destroy the teller of the truth than face the truth itself," she said.
Kee MacFarland, a representative from Children's Institute International, a group that has worked with victims in the McMartin case, commended South Bay parents for "working for children that they will never see."
"People here were hurt, but they looked around and they saw a system that hurts people, too," she said. "I have spent a lot of time sitting in the courtroom with children . . . I have left the courtroom with rage and anger."
Torres, the keynote speaker, was given a hero's welcome as parents and students alike rose to their feet when the senator approached the microphone.
"This bill was started because parents had a need to have justice for their children and children across the state," he said, applauding in return the dozens of parents who lobbied as "God's partners" for the legislation.
But it was the children at Mira Costa--the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who served in the color guard, the toddlers who sat on their mothers' laps and the hundreds of high school students who filed in from class--who were the real focus of the celebration.
"We wanted to preserve something lasting that will serve all children," explained Diane Carter, a Manhattan Beach parent and a founding member of the Children's Civil Rights Fund. "While we lighted the torch, hundreds of others carried it."