VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Single mothers, former drug addicts and other beaten-down young women who came to wealthy businessman Henry Allen Fitzsimmons for a chance to climb out of their financial hole knew his help came with a catch. In exchange for an allowance, a place to live and promise of a college education, they agreed to be spanked if they broke his rules.

At least six of the women said that his corporal punishment went too far, including one who alleges that he sexually assaulted her. Now the 54-year-old Virginia Beach restaurateur faces felony charges.

"These women are victims," prosecutor Tom Murphy said at a court hearing yesterday. "They're single moms. They need their bills paid. It's bizarre, there's no doubt."

Fitzsimmons' attorney claims that his slight, white-haired client is the victim, taken advantage of by women half his age who knew what they were getting into and who filed charges only after a falling out.

"He's not a danger," Fitzsimmons' attorney, Moody "Sonny" Stallings Jr., told the Associated Press. "Strange, but he's not a danger to anybody."

A judge yesterday allowed a grand jury to decide whether to indict Fitzsimmons on two felony abduction charges and three felony object sexual-penetration charges filed against him. Six other assault and sexual-battery charges were dropped because prosecutors acknowledged that the women had agreed to the spankings.

For months, Fitzsimmons gave each of the women $200 weekly, promised to pay for their college tuition, treated them to lavish nights on the town and even bought one a car as part of his so-called Spencer Scholarship Plan. They were spanked if they violated rules, such as drinking too much alcohol.

Several websites tout the Spencer Plan and the scholarship program, which provides full tuition, room and board, and an allowance for participants as long as they follow the plan.

The Spencer Plan started in the 1930s as a form of "carefully regulated corporal punishment" between husband and wife. Couples agreed to a list of things the wife needed to change, such as not spending money frivolously. If the rules were broken, the husband punished her by spanking and it was put behind them. It has expanded through the years.

One 21-year-old woman testified yesterday that the day she joined Fitzsimmons' program in November, he spanked her and gave her $300. He paid for her to live in an oceanfront suite and gave her a $200 weekly allowance. In return, she was required to walk 20 blocks each day, keep a log of her meals and spending, and refrain from using drugs. When she didn't, she was spanked.

Fitzsimmons took it further, she said, when on three occasions he sexually assaulted her with a curtain rod, a hairbrush and a horse-riding crop.

The Associated Press does not identify those who say that they were sexually assaulted.

Another 22-year-old woman said she thought that the program was an amazing opportunity. She had been spanked only once before she went to him in January to discuss him paying for her 3-year-old child's birthday party. She said he refused to let her leave until she let him spank her.

She and others said that they feared Fitzsimmons, who walks with a limp. They said that he made vague threats and convinced them that they couldn't make it without him.

"He terrorized my life," one woman said. "He took me away from all my friends and family, and convinced me nobody loved me but him."

None of the women filed charges until Fitzsimmons in April accused one of them of stealing money and fired her from his restaurant, the oceanside Envy Bar and Grill, where many of them worked. A week later, six women began filing charges.

Fitzsimmons came to Virginia Beach last year from Minnesota, but much of his past is a mystery. He has a master's in business administration, but much of his attention is spent counseling young women and helping those in need, friends said.

Terry Schantz and his girlfriend have helped run Fitzsimmons' bar since he was arrested in April and denied bond. He said that Fitzsimmons was a generous and caring man who would buy groceries for those in need or find the homeless a place to live.

Stallings admits that the case is strange but said that Fitzsimmons is no predator.

"They're trying to say he preys on these women," he said. "These aren't 15-years-olds. These are all adults and they're getting the money from this old guy."