Speaking in a soft voice that cracked with emotion, a convicted child molester apologized to three young girls whom he sexually assaulted, telling them in a Fairfax County courtroom yesterday that they should not feel guilty for what he did to them at his home last summer.

"First of all, to the children," said 54-year-old Joseph William Welsh, a Fairfax City man who previously had been convicted of molesting children in two other states. "They did no wrong. I did it all. Don't feel guilty."

To the parents, he added: "Don't be overprotective . . . . If {you} try to protect them too close, they are going to feel guilt."

After Welsh spoke, Judge Quinlan H. Hancock sentenced him to 45 years in prison. Under Virginia law, Welsh could have been sentenced to four life sentences plus 30 years.

In several incidents last July, Welsh took a 9-year-old girl, her 7-year-old sister and an 8-year-old friend, all from his neighborhood, into his confidence by telling them about sex. He then sexually assaulted them in his home on Maple Street and in a shed behind his house, where he ran an upholstery business.

He was arrested in October after one of the girls told her mother about the incidents.

In the court yesterday, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond Brownelle revealed that Welsh had been convicted of child molestation in Colorado and California in the last 15 years, and is still wanted by those states for violating probation.

According to a presentencing report read in court, a psychiatrist concluded that Welsh is a pedophile and that the prognosis for his recovery is not good because of his previous convictions.

In issuing the sentence, the judge told Welsh that "it's our duty to try to give {children} some guidance . . . . You've done exactly the opposite."

Welsh interrupted him, responding: "That's a part of me I do not understand."

Welsh's series of apologies angered the parents of the 8-year-old girl. The other two girls did not attend the sentencing.

"To say the least, I was very angry that the judge allowed him to direct his words toward my daughter . . . . His words were simply a leniency plea," said the girl's mother. "My daughter said she turned her ears off when he started talking."

As for Welsh's advice to the family, she said, "It was just a mind game. It was a little bit more damage. It was a mind game, which I believe he's been playing all along."

"The happy, loving, giving, carefree child that I had raised for eight years had suddenly disappeared, and in her place was left a person I didn't know, nor did I know how to reach her."