Chicago-area imam charged with sex abuse at Islamic school

  • The undated booking photo provided by the Elgin Police Department shows Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75, of Gilberts, Ill. Saleem, the longtime head of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill. was arrested Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, and charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school. Saleem is due to appear in Cook County bond court on Tuesday, Feb. 17 in Rolling Meadows, Ill.

    The undated booking photo provided by the Elgin Police Department shows Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75, of Gilberts, Ill. Saleem, the longtime head of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill. was arrested Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, and charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school. Saleem is due to appear in Cook County bond court on Tuesday, Feb. 17 in Rolling Meadows, Ill. Associated Press

  • Attorney Steven Denny speaks at a news conference as Jenan Mohajir, a founding board member of HEART Women and Girls, listens at right Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Chicago. Denny filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court against Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75, and the Institute of Islamic Education, accusing the longtime imam of sexually abusing three former female students and an employee at the school in Elgin, Ill. Saleem, of Gilberts, Ill., was arrested Sunday, Feb. 15 and charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school. Denny says she is the employee in the suit.

    Attorney Steven Denny speaks at a news conference as Jenan Mohajir, a founding board member of HEART Women and Girls, listens at right Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Chicago. Denny filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court against Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75, and the Institute of Islamic Education, accusing the longtime imam of sexually abusing three former female students and an employee at the school in Elgin, Ill. Saleem, of Gilberts, Ill., was arrested Sunday, Feb. 15 and charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school. Denny says she is the employee in the suit. Associated Press

  • Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater America, speaks at a news conference as Jenan Mohajir, a founding board member of HEART Women and Girls, looks on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Chicago. Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, the longtime head of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill., was arrested Sunday, Feb. 15 and is charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school, authorities said Tuesday. A civil suit filed hours later accuses Saleem of abusing that employee and others.

    Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater America, speaks at a news conference as Jenan Mohajir, a founding board member of HEART Women and Girls, looks on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Chicago. Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, the longtime head of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill., was arrested Sunday, Feb. 15 and is charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school, authorities said Tuesday. A civil suit filed hours later accuses Saleem of abusing that employee and others. Associated Press

  • Nadiah Mohajir, director of HEART Women & Girls, which raises awareness about sexual abuse in the Muslim community, speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Chicago. Mohammad Abdullah Saleem 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 Saleem of abusing that employee and others. Mohajir called Saleem’s arrest “a wake-up call” and said speaking openly about such matters is taboo for Muslims.

    Nadiah Mohajir, director of HEART Women & Girls, which raises awareness about sexual abuse in the Muslim community, speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Chicago. Mohammad Abdullah Saleem 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 Saleem of abusing that employee and others. Mohajir called Saleem’s arrest “a wake-up call” and said speaking openly about such matters is taboo for Muslims. Associated Press

 
By MICHAEL TARM
Posted2/17/2015 7:34 PM

CHICAGO -- 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.

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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.

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Associated Press reporter Don Babwin contributed to this report.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm

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