We have been following the expanding scandal over criminal charges brought against leading national Orthodox rabbi , Barry Freundel, who is now accused of filming over 150 women engaged in the ritual bath known as a Mikva. As if not to be outdone, leading Islamic scholar and Imam Mohammed Abdullah Saleem, 75, has been charged outside of Chicago with sexually abusing a 23-year-old employee last year in Elgin’s Institute of Islamic Education. He is also accused of abusing three other women. The four women have filed civil actions against him and the Islamic school in what could be a messy tort action that proceeds in tandem with the criminal charges. We have discussed the same criminal/civil tracks in the case of Rabbi Freudel.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Saleem is a Sunni Imam who was trained in the Deobandi school of thought, a fundamentalist movement based in India.
Attorneys say that the Islamic school had rampant abuse of minors that spanned over 30 years. There is even a Clintonesque piece of evidence. Reports have suggested that there is a dress with a semen stain that has been turned over to police. One report says that it has already tested positive for semen. If true, that would be obviously a particularly damaging form of evidence if it is a match to Saleem. It would reduce the defense to a matter of consent if the person was old enough to consent. That would still leave the immorality issue for the congregation but the immediate problem is the threat of a conviction.
Saleem’s 23-year-old office manager appears to be the person with the clothing evidence. She has stated that Saleee would lock them in her office and tell her to take off her veil and kiss and caress her. Imam Omer Muzaffar, a Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago, reportedly was brought in to mediate between Saleem and her family. He reportedly signed a generally word apology but then more women came forward. One is a 45-year-old mother of two who said that she was molested by Saleem in 1982 when she was sent to him to read the Quran. What is interesting is that she waited years but did tell her mother about the alleged abuse when the alleged victim was in her 30s.
As of now, Saleem is charged with one count of criminal sexual abuse of a woman. However, such a charge can be a placeholder to secure a defendant in custody. It is common to see charges added as an investigation unfolds.
The civil lawsuit could proceed on the same grounds that we discussed with regard to Freundel against the school. There is an obvious defense that this was a rogue employee acting outside not just his scope of employment but the dictates of his faith. That is an interesting twist since the job is defined in large part by the faith. However, even if there is no respondeat superior claim, there remains negligence if this was a long-standing problem of abuse that occurred over the course of decades. One of the most damaging element is that the accusations are not limited to Saleem. One of the plaintiffs is a man who said he was 11 when a male staff member abused him late at night at the boarding school. In the complaint, the man said that he had to climb through the ceiling tiles of a locked office to use the only available phone to call his parents. His mother reportedly removed him from the school the next day and told school administrators about the abuse but nothing was allegedly done. That account, if found to be true, could present a very serious problem at trial for the school.
The overall religious mission of the school will be another problem. Putting aside any bias issues that will have to be address in void dire, there is the fact that Saleem and other were in a position of authority over these students and holding themselves out as religious models. In a statement of one of the victims was released through a victim advocate and she said “Freshman year in high school I imagined a lot of new and exciting things with this new beginning… being molested by the principal of the school was not one of them.” A jury could easily agree with that assessment.