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Penn report on mishandling of MOVE remains faults two scholars for ‘gross insensitivity’

At the same time, the Penn report concluded that neither academic violated any “professional, ethical or legal standards.”

Family member Mike Africa, Jr. speaks during a protest April 28, 2021 in front of the Penn Museum over its handling of human remains from the MOVE bombing.
Family member Mike Africa, Jr. speaks during a protest April 28, 2021 in front of the Penn Museum over its handling of human remains from the MOVE bombing.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday condemned two of its anthropologists for mishandling the remains of a child killed in the MOVE bombing, accusing them of extremely poor judgment and gross insensitivity” in an exhaustive report into the Penn Museum’s role.

The 217-page report castigated retired professor Alan Mann for failing to return to the MOVE family the remains the city asked him to examine after the 1985 fire in which six adult MOVE members and five children died. The city medical examiner gave Mann the bones to see if he could verify them as the remains of 14-year-old Katricia “Tree” Dotson Africa. He was unable to.

» READ MORE: Read the Inquirer’s MOVE coverage

The report also sharply criticized Janet Monge, an associate curator at the Penn Museum, for using the bones as a teaching aid, particularly in a video class. The lawyers said she did so without seeking permission from the MOVE family.

At the same time, the review headed by Philadelphia lawyers Joseph H. Tucker Jr. and Carl E. Singley concluded that neither Mann nor Monge violated any “professional, ethical or legal standards.” The report immediately added, however, that Penn Museum had no policies in place then for how to treat such remains.

Mann, 81, declined comment when reached by The Inquirer on Wednesday. Monge, 67, did not return a phone message. The report said a “remorseful” Monge spoke with the lawyers, but Mann refused and instead gave them a detailed statement.

“We undertook this work because we wanted to help document a crime, with the hope that identification of the victims would bring a small measure of peace to their families,” Mann wrote. “I can’t imagine the pain and anguish experienced by the victims and their loved ones.”

The report said Monge had twice reached out to MOVE members for help in identifying the remains but was rebuffed. In 1995, she met with Ramona Africa, a MOVE leader and the only adult survivor of the bombing, but “Africa stated she would not help,” the report said.

In 2014, emails show, Monge enlisted an intermediary to call Katricia’s mother, Consuewella Africa, but she cursed at him and said that “unless I can bring her daughter back, I need to stop f— with her.”

Questions and criticism about the mishandling of the remains erupted in April, after new revelations about them were published by Billy Penn and The Inquirer. The next month, Philadelphia’s health director, Thomas Farley, resigned after admitting that, without contacting relatives, he had secretly ordered the cremation of the remains of other MOVE bombing victims that had been stored in the city’s medical examiner’s office — an order the city has since determined was never carried out.

Both Penn and the City of Philadelphia launched investigations into how some remains were handled in the decades since the bombing and why they had not been returned to relatives. The city’s review is expected to be completed this fall.

The mother of an 11-year-old who died in the bombing and a lawyer for the widow of a slain adult MOVE member dismissed the findings of the Penn inquiry. The lawyer, Michael Coard, also said the report had given an unfair pass to Penn as an institution.

Christopher Woods, who took over as director of Penn Museum days before the scandal broke, declined Wednesday to say if Penn would discipline Monge, calling that a private matter. But he promised to carry out recommendations in the report, including hiring a diversity officer for the 200-employee museum. He said he was also overhauling its policies for dealing with remains.

“These have been tough, tough lessons,” said Woods, who upon taking the job had to confront both the MOVE scandal and a separate controversy over the museum’s collection of 1,200 human skulls, including those of 52 enslaved people. “But we are committed doing whatever we need to to be in a better position to steward human remains in the collection.”

» READ MORE: Controversy flares over how Penn and Princeton treated a MOVE bombing victim’s remains

The university has since formally apologized to the bomb victims’ relatives, as has Woods. The remains were returned to MOVE relatives on July 2.

‘Smack in the face’

The university said it made Wednesday’s report public after delivering it to Janet, Janine, and Sue Africa. (All in the MOVE family use the last name Africa.) The women each lost a child in the fire.

The bodies of all those killed in the MOVE debacle were returned to family members for burial in the months after their deaths, although it has since become clear that some body parts were held back for forensic examination.

In the May 1985 confrontation, police laid siege to the group’s fortified house along Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia after neighbors complained of harassment by the organization. A gun battle broke out and police dropped a bomb on the home to dislodge a rooftop bunker.

The city let the resultant fire burn to destroy the bunker after the fire commissioner promised his firefighters could get the blaze under control. Instead, it spread and destroyed MOVE’s building and 60 other houses. The badly burned bodies of the MOVE adults and the children were found in the group’s basement.

» READ MORE: Philly health commissioner resigns over handling of MOVE victim remains

In 1986, Mann took custody of some remains — pelvic bones and part of a femur — in an effort to confirm or disprove the city’s conclusion that they were Katricia’s. He joined Princeton University’s faculty in 2001, but the remains stayed in a file cabinet at Penn’s museum, the report said. (Penn had previously asserted that Mann had kept them with him in Princeton for several years.)

Katricia and her younger sister, Zanetta, 13, were the oldest children to die during the fire. Their mother, Consuewella, was released from prison in 1994 after serving a 16-year sentence for MOVE-related convictions; she died June 16, two weeks before her daughter’s remains were returned to the MOVE family.

The law firm’s wide-ranging report included lengthy histories of the Philadelphia police’s relationship with the Black community and the city’s fraught dealings with MOVE, a predominantly Black group that extols an anarchist philosophy and once staged confrontational protests.

While the document provided new detail about the handling of the remains and faulted the city and the Penn scholars, it leveled no criticism at any senior Penn leaders, finding no evidence anyone outside the Penn Museum knew about the remains.

Without comment, it noted that Julian Siggers, the Penn Museum director from 2012 to 2020, and a former deputy museum director, Stephen Tinney, a 30-year Penn veteran, saw the bones at different times. It added: “No one in a leadership position at the Penn Museum believed that having the remains at the Museum and their display to students, donors and others violated any Museum policies.”

In an interview Wednesday, Coard, the attorney for the widow of slain MOVE member Conrad Africa, faulted the report for its focus on just the two professors. He said Penn’s failure to have policies banning the conduct was itself a major failing.

Similarly, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad — the writer and organizer whose commentary in The Inquirer helped break the news of the remains’ mishandling — called the report “wholly inadequate” and Penn’s response “a smack in the face of the family of the people harmed.”

Muhammad said the results of the report offer “little faith” in any further investigations into the handling of the remains. ”It’s like, what was this for?” they said. “And who gets to heal from this? Nobody.”

In the review, the lawyers noted that after the Penn Museum first realized a controversy was building over the remains — and that news stories were looming — deputy director Tinney told Monge to give them back to Mann. She did, and last month, Mann delivered them to a funeral home representing the family, where they were placed in a casket.

Woods, the current director, defended that decision to return them to Mann. Penn, he said, “had no agreement with the city. This was Alan Mann’s project.”

The report also sought to quell confusion over whether Mann had custody of bones from one or two victims, insisting evidence and interviews showed it to be just one.

However, it noted that Mann and Monge remained adamant the remains were not of a teenage girl, saying that all one could conclude was that they were of a MOVE victim of the bombing. For its part, the City of Philadelphia long ago officially identified them as Katricia’s.

The report also dwelled on how the news broke about the remains. It contended the reports in Billy Penn and The Inquirer were “instigated” by a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Penn, Paul Wolff Mitchell, who the report said had a vendetta against Monge, a former mentor, and had even threatened her in 2019 during an academic meeting. Monge told the lawyers she then locked him out of the museum.

Mitchell had no comment when reached Wednesday by The Inquirer. Muhammad said Mitchell had not prompted their commentary.

In an interview, Janine Africa, whose son, Phil, died in the fire at age 11, said she was unaware that Monge had reached out in 1995 and 2014. She was in prison at the time, one of nine MOVE members serving 30-year sentences in connection with the 1978 murder of Philadelphia police officer James Ramp.

“We’re still in the same position,” she said. “Our family’s been murdered, and all that was done to their remains is horrifying. We’re still left with these feelings.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.