TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area is accused of concealing the sexual abuse of “multiple boys” in a lawsuit that claims the suspect in a criminal case who was the congregation’s Youth Director “groomed” one of the children and later sexually assaulted him.
Ehab Ghoneim, 51, of Pinellas Park, is awaiting extradition from Chicago on three counts of unlawful sexual activity with minors for alleged crimes with five victims in his home, according to Pinellas Park Police Department. Police say Ghoneim met the children at the ISTABA mosque.
In a statement to its congregation, ISTABA said the organization asked police to conduct the investigation.
“ISTABA is taking a position to allow the authorities to take every opportunity to complete their investigation and uncover the truth,” the statement said.
Now, a two-count Hillsborough County civil complaint details accusations involving an unstated number of young ISTABA congregation members, including one identified as John Doe No. 1 who prayed with Ghoneim and trusted him as his spiritual leader, according to the document.
During a Wednesday news conference, plaintiff’s attorney Sam Badawi said many congregation members come from countries like war-torn Afganistan and turned to the mosque to feel accepted and safe.
“And that failed them. They’re shattered. They’re broken. They’re speechless. They’re mad,” Badawi said. “This isn’t Kabul or Kandahar. In the United States, we respect the rule of law.”
The lawsuit is seeking a jury trial and compensation from ISTABA in excess of $5 million and Badawi said evidence will show the organization ignored warning signs about Ghoneim.
“Multiple families approached the board, the leadership, and they failed to act,” Badawi said. “Why do organizations always seemingly wait until tragedy strikes to put protective mechanisms in place?”
While Badawi suspects the number of victims will reach “double-digits,” the complaint detailed one teenager’s allegations.
“[Ghoneim] became very close to John Doe No. 1,” the lawsuit states, further alleging the suspect was trying to gain the family’s confidence and trust.
The lawsuit claims the trust was betrayed on the night of a basketball event Ghoneim asked a “bunch of kids to sleep over” his house, where Doe was allegedly invited into the “master bedroom.”
“During his sleep, [Ghoneim] initiated inappropriate sexual contact, including touching John Doe No. 1’s genitals,” the lawsuit alleges.
Ghoneim hosted several sleepovers at his home and offered children pills to help them sleep, the filing asserts.
“But these pills were sedatives in order for [Ghoneim] to take sexual advantage of John Doe No. 1 while he is asleep,” the lawsuit alleges. “[Doe] was shocked and confused by these sexual acts.”
The complaint also alleges Doe was “sexually abused by [Ghoneim] on a camping trip sponsored by ISTABA.”
ISTABA has not yet responded to requests for comment about the lawsuit but said in its statement that the organization learned about the criminal case “approximately four months ago” and at that time “barred” Ghoneim from entering the Tampa property.
The filing also claims Ghoneim “sexually molested multiple boys,” while he was Youth Director, but none of the other allegations are detailed in the complaint.
ISTABA, the only named defendant, was informed that Ghoneim allegedly “molested young boys,” the complaint alleges.
“[Ghoneim] was removed from his position as Youth Director and reassigned as an Advisor,” the lawsuit states. “Without notice or any relevant disclosure to the congregation or families.”
Ghoneim was unavailable to comment due to his incarceration and court records do not currently include his attorney’s name.
Badawi, also the attorney for the family of Rafat Saeed, who was shot to death in May 2019 in the ISTABA Mosque parking lot, is critical of what he calls a pattern of the organization using volunteers for key positions connected to both cases.
Badawi said alleged gunman MD Rakibul Haque and Ghoneim were ISTABA volunteers.
ISTABA previously denied Haque, who is awaiting trial on a second-degree murder charge, was officially associated with the organization.
According to Pinellas Park police, Ghoneim was taken into custody in Chicago by the United States Marshals Service and United States Customs when he returned from Egypt earlier this month.
Police said Ghoneim also has ties to a mosque in the New Jersey area and asked anyone with information about him and this subject to contact law enforcement. ISTABA made a similar request in the statement to its congregation.
Badawi and co-counsel Cory Baird offered a message to parents of other victims during their news conference.
“You’ve got to approach a child, be open about it, let them know that it’s absolutely okay to say everything they can,” Baird said. “And certainly, if that happens, we’re unfortunately going to find a lot more boys who were sexually assaulted.”
Badawi added there are suspicions about Ghoniem’s past, specifically his work at a mosque in New Jersey.
“From talking to people, interviewing others, there have been some signals that this guy’s actions are very suspicious for quite some time,” Badawi said. “So, we don’t know how long [ISTABA] knew about this. Probably for a long time.”