Some former Archbishop Ryan students of Rev. Charles Newman are outraged.

They say the Rev. Newman, accused in a grand jury investigation of stealing nearly $1 million, isn't the same Father Charles they knew.

District Attorney Lynne Abraham said Thursday that a grand jury had found that Newman, 57, took $900,000 from both the archdiocesan high school and his own Franciscan Friars order.

Abraham also said that Newman sexually molested Arthur Bacelice III, a 1996 graduate of Archbishop Ryan, and at least three to four other male students. She said he had given the teens drugs and alcohol to seduce them to engage in sexual acts.

But those charges seem outlandish to Newman's supporters.

"We were just appalled; it actually hurts," said Matt McLaughlin, who graduated from Ryan in 1999.

"The guy was a saint," McLaughlin said yesterday of Newman. "We went to him if we needed someone to talk to, and he was always there."

Archbishop Ryan, where Newman worked for more than 20 years as a teacher, principal and president, is on Academy Road near Chalfont Drive in the Northeast. It is the largest high school in the archdiocese.

A grand jury probe found canceled checks totaling $54,000 that Newman allegedly had given to Bacelice. A sexual-abuse lawsuit Bacelice filed almost 10 years after he had graduated said that Newman gave him $30,000 to help Bacelice pay off mounting drug debts.

Bacelice died of a drug overdose at age 28 last year.

The 2004 lawsuit that Bacelice filed against the archdiocese and the Franciscan order also claimed that Newman caused his addiction to cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.

But the former students, saying they are "shocked" to hear of the charges, said the Franciscan friar was known to give money to poor students in need.

McLaughlin, who said he is the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters, said that Newman used money from the archdiocese to pay the entire tuition for him and his siblings one year.

For instance, the year McLaughlin started ninth grade, he said he had a brother and a sister in the 12th grade. He said Newman paid tuition for all three McLaughlin siblings that year.

"You're talking about a tuition of $10-, $11-, or $12,000 a year each back then," said McLaughlin, a truck driver.

"That's the kind of thing that Father Charles and the other friars would do for us," McLauglin said.

"He only gave money to people who needed it, people who needed lunch money, calculators or other things for school," McLaughlin said. "He'd toss me a $5 bill and say, 'Here, get some lunch.' "

Justin Kain, another man who identified himself as a former Ryan student, e-mailed the Daily News to say:

"You couldn't have been more wrong about this man! . . . IF he did take any money from the school, it was to help out students in need. . . . , " Kain wrote.

"I would consider him a modern day Robin Hood because IF he did take any money it was for the students who had sick parents dying from cancer or poor students who couldn't afford tuition. He NEVER used any money for personal fulfillment because he wore rags!!!!!"

Cathie Abookire, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, urged anyone with any information about Rev. Newman - positive or not - to call Assistant District Attorney Charles Gallagher at 215-686-8718.

"We don't have to prove motive," Abookire said, "but it's always helpful to know where the money went and what it was used for."

She said callers may choose to remain confidential.

McLaughlin also said that he didn't believe that Newman had sexually molested Bacelice or anyone else because he and four brothers attended Ryan and Newman "never laid a hand on any of us."

Jay Abramowitch, who was Bacelice's lawyer, said experts say a pedophile doesn't "just go out after any and every child he sees."

Experts say a pedophile is a "very selective" person who preys only on children who "appeal to their prurient interests." They also seek out children who are vulnerable and are not likely to expose the pedophile's actions, Abramowitch said yesterday.

After Newman was fired from Archbishop Ryan in 2003, he was sent to a treatment center for pedophiles in Indiana, Abraham said. He later moved to Wisconsin where he is currently living in a retirement home for Franciscan priests.

Abookire said law-enforcement officials are still awaiting details of Newman's plans to surrender. Abraham has said she wanted him back in Philadelphia before Christmas on Tuesday. *