CHICAGO (AP) – The longtime head of a suburban Chicago Islamic school has been charged with sexually assaulting a woman who worked there, and a civil suit filed Tuesday accuses him of abusing that employee and three teenage students. The legal actions shed light on an issue that even many Muslims say is too often pushed into the shadows within their communities.
Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75 – who founded the Institute of Islamic Education and is regarded as a leading Islamic scholar, or imam, in the United States – is charged with felony criminal sexual abuse. Prosecutors said he abused the 23-year-old woman, an administrative assistant at the Elgin school, in a series of escalating incidents over months.
The civil suit accuses Saleem of abusing that employee, as well as three female students at the school as far back as the 1980s. The lawyer in that case, Steven Denny, said Saleem took advantage of both the trust accorded to him as a religious leader and of the tendency of Muslims to remain silent on matters of sex and sexual abuse.
“This place was ripe for abuse,” Denny told a news conference.
It took special courage, he added, for his clients to come forward within a culture that discourages even casual contact – never mind explicit sexual contact.
The suit says a fifth person was abused when he was 11 by a male staffer at the school, not Saleem. It accuses the school of failing to protect children, many of whom lived on campus. It asks for more than $1.5 million in compensation, saying the victims are psychologically scarred.
Defense attorney Thomas Glasgow said he talked to his client about the Elgin charges and that Saleem “categorically denies the allegations.” He hadn’t had a chance to speak to him about the lawsuit. No one answered the phone Tuesday at the school, which has students from grades six through 12 and is 25 miles northwest of Chicago.
Saleem, of Gilberts, was arrested Sunday, Elgin police said. Authorities started investigating after the woman contacted them in December.
During a Tuesday bond hearing, prosecutors alleged that a month after the woman started working at the school in 2012, Saleem started removing the religious veil from her face and came into her office to hug her. Over several months, prosecutors said, he would hug her and squeeze her buttocks and breasts over her clothes.
Last April, prosecutors say Saleem locked the door of the woman’s office, lifted her dress, forced her to sit on top of him, massaged her and held her down when she tried to get up. Prosecutors say they collected evidence.
The lawsuit says that when one female student told a teacher Saleem touched her inappropriately, she was told, “Saleem is an old man and old people do things like that – so just forget it.”
Saleem’s bond was set at $250,000 and he was ordered to have no contact with the accuser, her family or anyone under age 18. Glasgow said he expected Saleem to post bond later Tuesday. Saleem, who also had to surrender his passport, is due in court again March 10.
At Denny’s news conference, a statement from the 23-year-old woman called on Muslims to speak up about sexual abuse. She said, “I will no longer stay silent.”
The chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater America, to which the school belongs, says he examined the facility’s bylaws and found they granted Saleem almost absolute decision-making power. In light of Saleem’s arrest, Mohammed Kaiseruddin said Islamic schools nationwide should rework their bylaws to allow greater oversight.
Nadiah Mohajir, director of HEART Women and Girls, which raises awareness about sexual abuse in the Muslim community, called Saleem’s arrest “a wake-up call” that presented an opportunity to address a topic that’s been taboo for too long.
“The shame and stigma surrounding sexual abuse is even higher in Muslim communities, with its emphasis on purity and modesty,” she said.
Kaiseruddin said the matter illustrated that Muslims were not immune to a problem that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church.
“We found out that Muslims are burdened by the same (issue) other faiths are burdened with,” he said