Bernhard Hugo Goetz, who has confessed to shooting four youths on a New York subway train last month, is not a vigilante but a gentle man with a "strong sense of social justice" who is concerned about the joblessness that leads to crime among minority youth, his lawyer told a Senate hearing yesterday.

The comments by attorney Joseph Kelner further muddied the political waters eddying about the case.

Goetz, 37, says he shot the four when they approached because of his fear of being injured as he was in a 1981 subway robbery, Kelner told the Senate Crime Caucus.

He quoted Goetz as saying, "It wasn't that I was afraid of being killed. But I wouldn't stand for being maimed again."

The injury, torn cartilage, is "a daily, nagging annoyance" to Goetz, his attorney said. "It doesn't sound like much, although Joe Namath had to retire because of it," Kelner said.

While Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and a string of witnesses expressed sympathy for Goetz's violent response to threatening "thugs," and hammered at the need to beef up the criminal justice system with more judges and prison cells, Kelner repeatedly refocused the discussion on the need for more federal funding for job-training programs for minority youths.

"This is not a black-against-white thing," Kelner said. He also said more than once that some of those present at the hearing were "oversimplifying" the Goetz case and the crime problem it has come to symbolize.

Kelner later told reporters that Goetz had mentioned to him a recent incident in which hundreds of youths in Harlem had lined up at 3 a.m. for jobs but most had been turned away. Kelner quoted Goetz as saying, "Here's where the beginning of these crimes start."

Goetz urged Kelner to come here to testify, the attorney said, "not as a publicity spree but . . . to state what he thinks is going to be the consensus of all his thinking. What he said was, 'Why couldn't those kids have gotten jobs?' "

D'Amato described Goetz as a symbol of the failure of the criminal justice system and unreeled from the dais 10-foot-long "rap sheets" of several repeat offenders who, despite their numerous arrests and convictions, have served virtually no time in prison.

"Bernhard Goetz may or may not have gone too far," D'Amato said. But the case has "demonstrated in the clearest possible terms the public's rage over a criminal justice system that fails its most sacred duty -- protection of the people from punks and career criminals."

D'Amato said he is afraid to get on the New York subway, even though he has a security guard when he does ride it. "And I don't think he feels too safe," the senator added.

"I think I'll subpoena you, sir," Kelner said with a smile.

Caucus co-chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said, "I believe the people of this country are truly fed up with the judicial system . . . . If we cannot provide law, order and justice, then people will take the law into their own hands. And civilized society cannot exist when people take the law into their own hands."

In Goetz's 1981 subway encounter, he was carrying about $1,000 worth of computer equipment home in midafternoon when three men jumped him, and one of them knocked him down, according to his account. During the struggle, Goetz was hit in the chest with a door handle. A police officer who happened upon the scene grabbed the man beating Goetz but the other two escaped.

The suspect, Fred Clarke of Brooklyn, 16, was taken to Criminal Court and was held for two hours and 35 minutes, by Goetz's recollection, while he spent 6 hours and 5 minutes there, with the arresting officer.

Clarke eventually served four months in jail, but in the interim was arrested in connection with at least two other robberies, according to New York City officials. Since his release, he has been arrested for two more robberies.

After the 1981 incident, Goetz applied for a pistol permit but was turned down because he showed insufficient need. He then reportedly went to Florida and obtained the .38-cal. gun he used in December's subway shootings.

Goetz, an engineer, faces charges that he shot and wounded the four teen-agers after they harassed him. One of the youths has a severed spine and is in a coma.

Kelner said his client acted "reasonably" under New York law, in circumstances "tantamount to life-threatening situations."