A man accused of sexually assaulting nine boys with physical or mental disabilities told a judge that having sex with children is a sacred ritual protected by civil rights laws.

Phillip Distasio, who said he is the leader of a church called Arcadian Fields Ministries, represented himself at his pretrial hearing Wednesday. He is charged with 74 counts including rape, pandering obscenity to minors and corrupting another with drugs.

"I'm a pedophile. I've been a pedophile for 20 years," he said in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Wednesday. "The only reason I'm charged with rape is that no one believes a child can consent to sex. The role of my ministry is to get these cases out of the courtrooms."

Distasio said some of his congregants are among the victims in this case. Distacio, of Rocky River, is accused of molesting two disabled boys he tutored at his home and raping seven autistic boys at a Cleveland school for special-needs students where he was a teacher's aide. All but one of the victims were under 13.

A conviction on rape counts involving any of the eight younger boys would mean an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole eligibility, prosecutors said.

Distasio tried unsuccessfully in June to fire his court-appointed lawyer because he wouldn't pursue a religious freedom defense. Distasio could represent himself if the attorney remained as an adviser, Judge Kathleen Sutula said.

Rocky River is 9 miles west of Cleveland.