Members of Network Against Child Abuse, a children's advocacy group, on Friday endorsed Attorney General David Wilkinson, and urged all Utahns who care about childrens' safety to do likewise.

"Child abuse is deplorable by all standards," said Lynda N. Driscoll, director of the citizen's group. "The upcoming election is crucial to deciding who will protect the children."Driscoll said Wilkinson has taken a firm stand against child molesters "by investigating and prosecuting cases where exasperated families have come as a last resort."

"Paul Van Dam has stated he would turn child abuse cases back to the counties, and that the attorney general's office should stay out of them," she said. "But counties are simply not always able to deal with this complicated and hideous crime."

Driscoll's comments didn't set well with Van Dam, Wilkinson's Democratic opponent, who believes it would save a lot of time and trouble if groups like Driscoll's would talk with him personally.

"What I have said, and I think has been misrepresented by my opponent, is that county attorneys are the first line of defense in criminal cases," he said. "In the event that a county can't do it, or that it (a case) should be prosecuted and they aren't doing it, it's appropriate for the attorney general to step in and prosecute.

But Driscoll believes Van Dam is "evidently unaware of the difficulties presented by child sexual abuse prosecution, and the limitations the counties experience.

"By the same token, he seems unwilling to commit the necessary resources to protect the innocent victims of abuse," she said. "Indeed, it seems extremely unusual that an individual running for chief prosecutor for the State of Utah, and who claims to be `vastly experienced,' would be so utterly uninformed in an area where cases have increased expedentially within the last three years."

Van Dam disagrees with her evaluation. He says the basic difference between him and Wilkinson is that the current attorney general talks. Van Dam does.

"Of all the talk he has done about child abuse, there has been only one case that he's prosecuted and I know he's claimed his office has 12 or 15 cases," Van Dam said. "I have actually been in court and have prosecuted these kinds of cases.

"I know how to do it better than he or anyone in his office," he stressed. "I would be stronger at it and better at it than he would."

Van Dam hasn't convinced members of the Network Against Child Abuse, who maintain that "David Wilkinson has been bold enough to take a stand against child abuse in the State of Utah."

"A vote for Van Dam would be a giant step backwards," Driscoll said. "Do we really want our children to be left with no one to protect them when the local system fails to do so?"