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In the fall of 1985, three weeks after enrolling in an Ontario boarding school, a teenager we'll call Graham wrote his mother to share his growing appreciation for his new surroundings.

He described the cooking and cleaning chores. He wrote that he wanted to become a teacher. It was only in the third of his letter's eight pages that he worked up the nerve to discuss something that had happened during the summer.

"There has been something on my mind for a long time and I think I should tell you," he wrote. "I'm not sure how Dad would handle it."

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A year earlier, Graham had been in Grade 10 at Selwyn House, a prestigious all-boys preparatory school in Montreal. Since it was founded 100 years ago by a British officer who'd attended the college of the same name at Cambridge, Selwyn House has educated the sons of Montreal's anglo elite, such as the billionaire Charles Bronfman, former Alcan chief executive officer David Culver and several members of the Molson family.

Graham and his older brother both attended the school, where family friend John Aimers had been a teacher and debating-club coach. Mr. Aimers left in 1979, but he also belonged to the same church choir as Graham in the tony Westmount district, and sometimes visited the boy's home.

That summer he hired Graham as a clerk at the organization he then chaired - the Monarchist League of Canada which, its website says, is devoted to a "better understanding of the benefits of consti- tutional monarchy" and has "a close relationship" with the governor-general.

But when he started the job, Graham told his mother, Mr. Aimers seemed bent on a close relationship of quite a different kind. He hugged his new employee, wrestled him to the floor, trying to fondle his nipples and genitals, saying, "You're a nice dirty little boy, aren't you?"

"Mum, I'm scared of him. Should I report him?" Graham asked. "I need advice, Mum. I know something has to be done because I don't want to live with the memory of this all my life."

And yet the teenager's distress remained a family secret for two decades. Today he is one of as many as 20 former students who say they were sexually abused by teachers at Selwyn House and their allegations were hushed up - in a manner like that of Upper Canada College, the elite Toronto private school that kept secret its payoff to a former student who claimed he'd been sexually assaulted.

Because of the persistent silence, victims in both cases assumed that they were alone in their suffering - and, as a result, couldn't make the escape from isolation that University of Toronto psychiatry professor Catherine Classen describes as a key step in the recovery of children subjected to sexual abuse.

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"There's tremendous rage about it," she explains. "There is hopefully the beginnings of some realization that you're not responsible. But it takes a long time … to really undo those beliefs that they've developed about themselves."

LIFTING THE CURSE

Selwyn House's silence was broken in the fall of 2005, when one of the 20 ex-students filed a class-action suit against the school. "There was far too much, I don't know, call it carpet-sweeping, denial, maintenance of façade … within this institution," he said in a statement to the court, "and it's high time that this comes out."

That may not happen. School administrators and the plaintiffs are on the verge of a settlement that would end the case and yet again draw the curtain on what took place.

But this month, at the request of The Globe and Mail and CTV News, a judge agreed to unseal dozens of pages of court documents filed as part of the suit. These papers - private correspondence such as Graham's letter, affidavits, examination transcripts, police reports - provide the few details that will be made public.

According to the documents, the students were subjected to sexual advances from Mr. Aimers and two colleagues: Leigh Seville and James P. Hill. They describe incidents in which the teachers beat students, plied them with alcohol and drugs, fondled their genitals, kissed or masturbated them.

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Other acts listed range from simulated intercourse and teachers either exposing themselves or photographing students in sexual poses to fellatio and anal penetration.

More important, the documents demonstrate how, over a span of several decades, students and their parents felt betrayed after receiving little response when they reported the abuses, often unaware that they weren't the first to try.

"It was an issue I'd buried, thinking my story unique, unbelievable, shameful. I now regret that my silence likely allowed the abuse to continue," W.W. (plaintiffs' identities are concealed by the court) says in a letter to the judge.

Another ex-student, dubbed T.Y., describes in a deposition how, in classrooms in the mid-1960s, Mr. Hill routinely reached under students' shirts to squeeze their nipples. On his 17th birthday, he adds, Mr. Hill invited him to his apartment and tried to fondle him. "It's etched in my mind, and has been for 36 years."

Known for meting out corporal punishment with a fishing rod and taking his favourites for field trips in his white convertible, Mr. Seville joined the staff in 1967, and by 1971, was the subject of allegations.

That year, Keith, a Grade 5 student, was struggling in math, and Robert Speirs, then Selwyn's headmaster and a friend of Keith's father, arranged to have Mr. Seville serve as his private tutor.

In his affidavit, Keith says that Mr. Seville assaulted him several times, even at the young man's home. After one particularly upsetting episode, Keith alerted his father, who complained to Dr. Speirs.

"My husband and I expected that Selwyn would take steps to prevent Leigh Seville from assaulting other students," Keith's mother says in a deposition, "such as forbidding him from tutoring or from being alone with students in any circumstances."

Not only was no action taken, Keith spent another year at Selwyn, and often received corporal punishment in class from Mr. Seville, using a cane, a pointer or his bare hands. "He routinely humiliated me … I believe Seville treated me in this fashion because I had told my father of the assaults."

But Keith kept the reprisals to himself. He was in his 30s when his father found out from another ex-student - and "apologized to me profusely for not having acted further."

In 1979, eight years after Keith had left the school, a boy now known as M.G. was repeatedly assaulted by Mr. Seville over a three-year period that began when he was just 11. In a sworn deposition, M.G. recalls how Mr. Seville took him on a trip to Jasper, Alta., and plied him with gin and tonic before masturbating him.

Abused "close to 15 times," he had his first taste of liquor as a result, and has struggled with substance abuse. "I learned early on that I could forget and cope with things through alcohol and drugs."

By the time M.G. had left Selwyn, a Grade 5 student named Bill had come to Mr. Seville's attention. In the fall of 1983, he brought his parents a letter suggesting that, the next summer, he and three other boys join Mr. Seville on a cross-Canada trip to "follow up" on their geography and history lessons.

Bill's mother recalls in an affidavit that she and her husband were concerned after reading an article about pedophilia and noticing that its portrayal of the offenders "made us immediately think of Leigh Seville." They met a Selwyn administrator who assured them that Mr. Seville was trustworthy. But when they picked up their son upon his return, "he cried and said he never wanted to go on a trip like that again."

FIGHTING BACK

In some cases, parents did confront an accused teacher. In 1985, after reading Graham's letter, his mother sent Mr. Aimers a letter forbidding him to contact her son. "You betrayed my trust. You were uniquely aware of [his]vulnerability and his painful search for a father-figure."

Correspondence in the court record shows that Mr. Aimers agreed to a meeting, but then cancelled, saying he was undergoing surgery for a tumour. The family didn't hear from him again - and didn't even know if he was alive - until he appeared on television commenting on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Long after leaving Selwyn, M.G. finally shared his secrets with a girlfriend, who was shocked to learn that Mr. Seville still taught at the school. In late October, 1991, she made an anonymous call to Will Mitchell, who'd become the headmaster in 1985. "Mitchell did not seem surprised by the information I provided," she says in a sworn statement. "He did, however, advise he would confront Seville."

After that confrontation, the teacher didn't come back to work. He lived with his 81-year-old father, and a week later, the police found their bodies in a car in the garage.

But instead of making the allegations against him public, the school suggested to staff, students and parents that Mr. Seville had grown despondent over his father's failing health.

T.Y., who'd failed to have the school act against Mr. Hill, wondered what had prompted the suicide. "Maybe there is somebody other than me," he recalls thinking.

Then a school administrator told him Mr. Seville had killed himself because of his father's diminishing faculties. "Oh, Christ, once again, I'm alone," T.Y. thought. "It must be me." And he went on a drinking binge "of epic proportions."

Prof. Classen says child abusers often make their victims feel responsible for what's going on. "Getting validation that they weren't the only ones that this happened to - that it wasn't their fault - that's tremendously important."

And yet Selwyn House kept quiet when Mr. Seville died, and did so again two years later, when officials settled with yet another former student who said he'd been assaulted by the teacher, offering to pay more than $8,000 for therapy and $250 in monthly allowance as long as everything remained confidential.

Again in 1997, it kept under wraps a letter from a former student saying he'd been given drugs and sexually abused by Mr. Aimers in the 1970s.

In a statement last week, board chair Edward Claxton told alumni any information that came to Selwyn's attention was treated "in a professional and sensitive manner."

M.G. feels otherwise. Now a business executive and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he says he saw no attempt to help the victims and "It sickens me to this day."

W.W. also remains bitter. He entered Selwyn on an academic scholarship but after he was abused, his grades dropped. Now he lives in a small town, studying the Bible. "Never married. Without a stable career, I earn a modest income as a farm labourer. Needless to say, a great disappointment for my immigrant parents."

But T.Y. says that, when the class-action suit was launched and others began to step forward, he received an e-mail from his lawyer with the subject line: "You are not alone."

"It was," he says, "probably the greatest day of my life."

Tu Thanh Ha is a Globe and Mail reporter based in Toronto.

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