CHICAGO – A prominent Islamic scholar and longtime head of a suburban Chicago school has been charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school, authorities said Tuesday. A civil suit filed hours later accuses him of abusing that employee and three students.
Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75, who founded the school in Elgin, called Institute of Islamic Education, is charged with felony criminal sexual abuse. Prosecutors say that he abused the woman, an administrative assistant at the time, in a series of escalating incidents over months.
The civil suit filed in Cook County Circuit Court accuses Saleem him of abusing that employee, as well as three other females when they were students at the school. Lawyer Steven Denny said that over decades, Saleem abused the trust accorded to him as a religious leader who was widely respected in close-knit Muslim communities.
"This place was ripe for abuse," Denny told a news conference.
Defense attorney Thomas Glasgow said he talked to his client about the Elgin charges and that he "categorically denies the allegations." He had 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 located 25 miles northwest of Chicago.
Saleem, of Gilberts, was arrested Sunday, the Elgin Police Department said. Police said they started investigating after the woman contacted authorities in December.
During Tuesday's bond hearing, prosecutors alleged that a month after the woman started working at the school in September 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, squeeze her buttocks and breasts over her clothes, and eventually tried to kiss her.
Last April, according to prosecutors, 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, including evidence found on the woman's clothing.
Saleem's bond was set at $250,000 and he was ordered to have no contact with the alleged victim, any members of her family or anyone under the age of 18. Glasgow said he expected Saleem to post bond and be released later Tuesday. The judge also ordered Saleem to surrender his passport. The next court date is March 10.
At the news conference announcing the civil suit, statements from alleged victims -- none of whom were identified -- were read. The 23-year-old woman, referred to as Jane Doe No. 1 in the lawsuit, called on Muslims to address questions of sexual abuse more openly. 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 his organization examined the Islamic school's bylaws and found they granted Saleem almost absolute decision-making power -- enabling any president to easily conceal any wrongdoing.
In light of Saleem's arrest, Mohammed Kaiseruddin said Islamic schools across the country should rework their bylaws to allow for more oversight.
Muslim activists in Chicago said the legal action presents an opportunity to address an issue that was typically kept in the shadows. 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."
She said speaking openly about such matters is often taboo for Muslims.
"The shame and stigma surrounding sexual abuse is even higher in Muslim communities, with its emphasis on purity and modesty," she said. "I hold those values dear, too. But I think they're confused and conflated."
Kaiseruddin said the legal action demonstrated that Muslims were not immune to allegations similar to those that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church.
"We found out that Muslims are burdened by the same (issue) other faiths are burdened with," he said.