Nine former students at a now-defunct school for the deaf claim in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that they were beaten, sexually molested and emotionally tormented by the nuns who ran the school.

The plaintiffs are suing at least 14 nuns, along with two priests, an athletic instructor and a former top official in the Boston archdiocese, according to their attorney, Mitchell Garabedian (search).

The victims, three women and six men, were between the ages of 7 and 16 when they were allegedly sexually and physically abused between 1944 and 1977. They are now 41 to 67 years old.

"They are all speech impaired and hearing impaired," said Garabedian, who represents a total of 31 former students at the school and expects to file more lawsuits alleging abuse there. "Instead of receiving an education they received beatings and sexually abusive actions."

The nuns are all members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston (search). Their order served as the faculty and administration of the Boston School for the Deaf (search), which was operated by an independent, nonprofit corporation. The school, in Randolph, closed a decade ago.

The case is the first to allege widespread abuse by nuns since the clergy sex abuse scandal began in Boston in early 2002.

Garabedian said the abuse included fondling, rape, and rape with foreign objects. At least one student's head was submerged, face-first, in a toilet until she passed out; others were locked in closets for hours as a form of punishment.

"The physical abuse is extremely disturbing," said Garabedian, who has represented hundreds of people who filed lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests. "It's disturbing, ugly and pitiful."

The Sisters of St. Joseph, in a statement released Tuesday afternoon emphasized that the school, which was open from 1899 to 1994, had positively influenced "thousands of lives," but also promised an immediate, fair and sensitive investigation.

"With regard to the accusations of abuse against our sisters and others at The Boston School for the Deaf, we will proceed with sensitivity and dignity for the alleged abused and with a sincere reverence for the truth and respect for civil and canon law," the statement said.

"We want to remind all that the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston approaches reports of possible abuse with compassion, pastoral care, and attention to the protection of each person involved," the statement said.

More than two dozen plaintiffs and supporters crowded quietly into a hotel conference room Tuesday. Several of them made emotional statements through sign language interpreters.

James Sullivan, 55, of Boston, who attended the school from 1953 to 1967, told of a day in third grade in which he had his head slammed into a wall and a door, was slapped around and hit with a yardstick until he was bloody.

When he went home and told his parents, Sullivan said, they didn't listen to him.

"They felt the nuns were right, you know, they had to discipline me," he said.

Sullivan also alleges in the complaint that he suffered sexual abuse at the school.

"I'm still not a happy person because of all that happened," he said. "I really don't know who I am until this day."

The defendants now range in age from 75 to 95, said Garabedian, who filed the 100-page complaint in Suffolk Superior Court.

It names sisters Mary McAvoy, M. John Berchmans, Helen Thomas, M. Joanita O'Connor, Catherine Corrigan, Mary Mark, Bernadette Duggan, Elizabeth Benersani, Mary Carl Boland, Mary Kieran McCormack, Alice Kirby, Helen Callahan, Miriam Theresa Ringer, as well as an unknown nun and priest.

Also listed were Gary Gedney, the school's athletic instructor, the Rev. Charles J. Murphy, a priest of the Boston Archdiocese, and Bishop Thomas V. Daily, who held several top posts in the archdiocese before becoming bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn. There were several other defendants whose identities were unknown.

Telephone messages left for several of the defendants Tuesday weren't immediately returned.

Sister Boland, a former principal of the school who also allegedly physically abused children, reached at a Framingham retirement home for nuns, had nothing to say when asked about the lawsuit.

"I don't know what he's talking about," she said as she passed the phone to another woman. The other woman said, "We are not responding to reporters here" and referred calls to the president of the congregation.

Some of the defendants were accused of participating in the abuse, while others, like Daily, were named for negligent supervision of the abusers. Daily, who is now bishop emeritus of the Brooklyn diocese, didn't immediately return a call to his New York office.

Boston Archdiocese spokesman Rev. Christopher Coyne did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Boston was the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in December 2002 amid criticism of his handling of the crisis, and the archdiocese reached an $85 million settlement last year with more than 550 people who said they were abused by priests.

Paul LaRocque, 67, of Gardner, who attended the school from 1942 to 1954, said he was only 5 years old when nuns fondled his testicles and penis. He also said he had witnessed other incidents of nuns fondling boys.

"It's just horrible to explain," he said. "It's just awful."

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, headquartered in the city's Brighton section, include more than 500 nuns who minister in the Boston area and beyond, a spokeswoman said.