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A man accused of setting 21 church fires in Florida and Tennessee was sexually molested by a church member as a child, and may have acted out his resentment by torching houses of worship, investigators said.

Patrick Lee Frank was arrested on arson charges in November 1991. The weekend disclosure of sexual abuse provided the first possible motive for the fires, which caused millions of dollars in damage and destroyed some of the churches.Federal and state investigators confirmed that Frank was sexually assaulted by a church member in East Ridge, Tenn., the town where he grew up and where some of the fires were set.

"It didn't surprise me once the facts came to life," said David Guy, an arson investigator with the Tennessee State Fire Marshal's Office in Nashville. "It added up. He was abused in his childhood, and then many years later he began to take it out spitefully on churches."

The Rev. John Gillespie is pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church, one of the churches in Gainesville that Frank is accused of burning.

Gillespie said he and other church leaders have long wondered why their churches were targets of an arsonist.

"Part of me was wanting him to be completely crazy in hopes there could be no rational reason for his attacking churches," Gillespie said.

Guy said that when investigators talked with Frank's family and friends, they learned that someone connected to an East Ridge church sexually assaulted Frank on several occasions.

Guy would not say who molested Frank, how the person was connected to the church or whether it was one of the churches that Frank is accused of burning.

"It is unknown whether the assaults took place in the church," Guy said. "Back when Patrick was a youth, these things were not brought out. There was no means for him to vent his frustrations, no one for him to talk to."

Guy said investigators tried to piece together Frank's past, learning that he had a troubled life, came from a family with alcohol problems and later abused alcohol himself.