SAN DIEGO (AP) _ A former Sunday school teacher on trial for allegedly molesting children said on the witness stand his physical deformities may have caused the youngsters to make up their accusations.

Dale Akiki, who has an enlarged head, a club foot and droopy eyelids because of birth defects, tearfully proclaimed his innocence Wednesday.

''I loved those kids as if they were my own, and I treated them that way,'' he said. ''I don't understand why they would say these things about me. Maybe it's my appearance. I don't know.''

Akiki, 35, denied all 38 charges of sexual abuse, torture and kidnapping stemming from his volunteer work in the nursery of Faith Chapel, an evangelical Christian church.

Prosecutors say that while parents attended services in 1988 and 1989, Akiki raped and sodomized nine children, threatened them with guns and knives, forced them to eat feces, beat them, photographed them nude and tortured them with scalding water.

The children were 3 and 4 years old at the time. Each has testified.

Prosecutors said Akiki pretended to kill animals to frighten the children into silence and that it took months of psychological counseling to convince them they could safely tell their parents.

The case has left the community strongly divided. Akiki's supporters have organized marches to protest the prosecution as a witch hunt.

Akiki has been in jail without bail since his May 1991 arrest. Trial began in April.