Former students at a church-run institute for the deaf in Montreal have come forward with graphic tales of sexual abuse they allege they suffered during more than four decades.

Quebec's Superior Court authorized a class-action lawsuit last March against members of the Clerics of St-Viateur who worked at the school, formerly known as the Montreal Institute for the Deaf.

The former boarding school was run by the Clerics of Saint-Viateur, a religious congregation founded in 1831.

According to students who attended the all-boys institute between 1940 and 1982, violent sexual assaults were commonplace.

Denis Chalifoux, who alleges he was eight years old when the abuse began in 1968, is one of 64 claimants taking part in the class action against 28 religious staff and six lay workers. Only four or five of the alleged abusers would still be alive today.

Most of the alleged victims' identities are protected in court documents, but Chalifoux came forward to tell his story to CBC's French-language service with the help of a sign-language interpreter. He described horrific acts allegedly at the hands of a staff member.

"He showed me his penis. It was in front of me, in my face. I didn't want to look," Chalifoux told Radio-Canada. "He touched my cheek with it. All the while, he was masturbating."

Ex-student's life crumbled

Chalifoux alleged he became a sex slave and was repeatedly abused by at least six different people at the school.

"I thought that's how it worked. That… every night, you had to have sexual contact with the brothers," he said.

Chalifoux said he left the school at age 14 and was unable to read or write. His life continued to crumble over the next 15 years as he took part in prostitution and turned to drugs and alcohol.

Chalifoux is now happily married and free of drugs, but said he wants to make the alleged abusers know about the pain he felt.

Roch Savoie, another former student, said the alleged abuse was repetitive.

Savoie attended the school in the late 1950s, and said violent sodomy often led him to the infirmary — where he would be sexually abused again.

"It was habitual – repetitive – during all those years," he said.

Both alleged victims say teachers, kitchen workers and cleaning personnel were taking part in the sexual assaults.

Serge Laroche, a former teacher at the school, said he was unsure of what to do when students confided in him because he was once a student at the school himself.

"I was abused, too, by two of the brothers," he said.

Some students told him to call their parents or call the police, but he said he kept quiet because of his position as a professor.

He said he regretted not speaking out but the claims.

Alleged abuser says he was acquitted

Tony Campisi said he and his friend, Pierre Leveillé, took one of their teachers to court after their parents found out about the alleged sexual assaults in the 1970s.

Campisi told the court that Rev. Jean-Marc Pépin would touch him, saying it was "to explain how the body works, that it was for the future and that it was important."

After more of Pépin's students were questioned, the teacher was charged with assault and incitement to lawbreaking against five students. In court, students testified he had forced them to touch him inappropriately.

Campisi said he never found out whether Pépin was found guilty, but he did not return to the institute for the deaf.

Contacted by Radio-Canada, Pépin said he was acquitted of the charges in 1973, but the news channel was unable to confirm that. He declined further comment. 

A former student confronted Pépin with a hidden camera years later.

At first, Pépin says in the video that he doesn't remember anything about possible sexual abuse at the institute. But soon after, he tells the former student he is profoundly sorry.

It's not clear what Pépin is apologizing for, though.

Radio-Canada tracked Pépin and found that he was transferred to Collège Bourget, another school run by the Clerics of St-Viateur, where he worked until 1988. He then served as a priest in Berthier, about 80 kilometres northeast of Montreal. 

Clerics' response

In a statement released by the Clerics of St-Viateur last week, the organization says that if there was abuse, it regrets it. The statement also says that due to the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that the case is before the court, the organization is refraining from any further comment.

About 200 supporters of the alleged victims took part in a protest Sunday across from the former site of the school in Montreal, urging the Clerics of St-Viateur to settle the case.

"The Clerics of St-Viateur must own up to what they've done. Every Sunday at mass, they talk about moral obligation," said Carlo Tarini, spokesman for the Association of Priests' Victims of Quebec.

The religious group tried to obtain a publication ban on the names of the defendants in the lawsuit, but the judge rejected that demand, stating that the purpose of a class-action lawsuit is to deter similar acts.

The alleged victims are seeking $100,000 each, for a possible total of $6.4 million.

Last year, the building that was once home to the institute for the deaf was transformed into condominiums.

The Clerics of St-Viateur said the property, valued at an estimated $15 million, was sold for $7 million.