TAMPA — A 15-year-old boy at the center of a lawsuit against the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay was raised to be a devout Muslim, active in his congregation and devoted to his prayer sessions, his lawyers say.
So when his parents decided to move to America, and the boy found himself adjusting to a new school in Tampa, he looked to what he knew — his faith — for comfort and security.
The family attended prayer meetings and socials at the flagship mosque of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, called Sligh Masjid, 7326 E. Sligh Ave. in Tampa.
But now the family says Islamic Society leaders whom they once considered “revered fixtures in their daily lives” turned a blind eye to parents’ concerns that its former youth director was sexually assaulting teenage boys in his charge.
The suit, filed on behalf of one boy, accuses Ehab Ghoneim, 51, of Pinellas Park, of grooming the boy “as a sexual target at a very young age through his position and status” as director of the Islamic Society’s “Muslim Youth in Action” program.
“Now, they’re shattered,” said Sam Badawi, one of the Tampa attorneys representing the boy and his family. “They’re broken. They’re speechless. They’re mad.”
Mosque leaders started receiving complaints from parents about Ghoneim’s interactions with their children when he first joined the Sligh Masjid in 2014, Badawi said.
The leaders responded by moving Ghoneim out of the youth director role into a youth advisory role, the lawsuit said. Unsatisfied, parents reached out to the Pinellas Park Police Department in March, police spokeswoman Sgt. Roxanne Pohl said.
An investigation found that Ghoneim engaged in sexual acts with at least five children he met while volunteering at the mosque, though there could be more victims in the Tampa Bay area and in Middletown, N.J., where he was an active member of the Masjid Al Aman, detectives said.
Ghoneim was arrested by U.S. marshals in Chicago while traveling back to his Pinellas Park home after a trip to Egypt. He awaits extradition to Florida to face three criminal charges of unlawful sexual activity with minors.
Court records do not list an attorney representing him. The New Jersey mosque did not immediately return phone calls and emails for comment.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area said it only learned of the accusations against Ghoneim about four months ago. The society communicated immediately with authorities and its members and barred Ghoneim from its property and from contact with youth, the statement said.
“We want to ensure our community that complete background checks are conducted on all individuals that interact with our youth, students and Sisters that work and interact on our campus,” the statement said.
Ghoneim became close to the boy in the lawsuit, identified as John Doe 1, and gained his parents’ trust by “counseling, praying, traveling, camping and spending a great deal of time with him,” the lawsuit said.
On at least two occasions, during an Islamic Society-sponsored camping trip and an impromptu sleepover at Ghoneim’s home, Ghoneim inappropriately touched the boy, the lawsuit said.
On one occasion, after a basketball game with the youth group and before a weekend getaway to Orlando sponsored by the Islamic Society, Ghoneim invited some teens to sleep over at his house, the lawsuit said. He invited John Doe 1 to sleep in the master bedroom, away from other teens, where he engaged in inappropriate contact, the lawsuit said.
“Ehab will offer kids pills to help them sleep, but these pills were sedatives,” the lawsuit said.
It was not clear whether the youths described in the lawsuit are the same youths whom police are investigating as possible victims in the criminal case.
Islamic Society leaders are “taking a position to allow the authorities to take every opportunity to complete their investigation and uncover the truth,” the society said in its statement to the Times.
The allegations against Ghoneim “did not involve any activities on ISTABA’s grounds/property,” according to the statement.
“At the time he was a volunteer who helped in organizing Halaqas with a group of youths from our local community,” the statement said. “All activities were monitored by our Imams who also attended many of the field trips.”
The society asks in the statement that members of the congregation at Sligh Masjid and anyone else with information about Ghoneim contact the Pinellas Park Police Department at 727-369-7864.