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Penn anthropologist sues Inquirer, Penn, and others over criticism about her handling of MOVE victim remains

Penn anthropologist Janet Monge says she was unfairly accused of insensitivity to the MOVE family.

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

A University of Pennsylvania anthropologist who was accused last year of mishandling the remains of MOVE bombing victims, including using them to teach a class, has struck back in a lawsuit, alleging she was defamed by false accusations and unfairly depicted as a racist.

Janet Monge, in a civil complaint filed Friday in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas, is suing her employer, the University of Pennsylvania, and The Inquirer and other media outlets, the Association of Black Anthropologists, and the Society of Black Archaeologists, and other parties.

Monge claims she was demoted from her positions at Penn and suffered unfair harm to her reputation after The Inquirer and Billy Penn published articles last spring detailing that she and a colleague, her mentor Alan Mann, had kept bone fragments of children who died in the 1985 MOVE bombing and that Monge used the remains in a video class.

Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a home belonging to MOVE members in West Philadelphia in 1985, killing six adults and five children. The city medical examiner gave Mann the children’s bones after the bombing for him to identify. He could not, but the remains were not returned to the city.

Also last year, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned after admitting that he’d ordered the cremation of other remains of MOVE bombing victims, though the city later learned that his order was never carried out. Both Penn and the city launched investigations into the mishandling of the remains.

Penn issued its report in August, condemning Mann and Monge for mishandling the remains and criticizing Monge’s use of the bones as a teaching aid.

According to Monge’s complaint, she was no longer allowed to teach at Penn and she was demoted from associate curator at the Penn Museum to a position with lower pay.

In her lawsuit, Monge defended her use of the word juicy to describe the remains in the video class — highlighted by some news coverage last year as particularly offensive — as a term used in her field of study and research, not an insensitive or racist one. She also claimed the remains had not been conclusively identified as a child killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing by the city, in part because she was unable to reach the family. (Although Mann and Monge maintained that the remains were not of a teenage girl, the city had concluded that they belonged to 14-year-old Katricia “Tree” Dotson Africa.)

Monge’s complaint says some of the information in the accounts critical of her came from doctoral candidate Paul Mitchell, who she said had a vendetta against her and was motivated to spread false information. Penn’s investigation released last year also cited Mitchell and said he “instigated” reports by The Inquirer and Billy Penn. Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, an activist and freelance writer who wrote the initial Inquirer piece, said Mitchell had not prompted their commentary.

Penn spokesperson Ron Ozio and Timothy Spreitzer, a spokesperson representing The Inquirer, declined comment.

Muhammad, who is named in the lawsuit, called the complaint “baseless.”

“I don’t think this has merit,” Muhammad said. “There’s literally a video of her holding up the remains, calling them ‘juicy.’ And then she claims she’s someone who has been fighting for social justice. Why would you hold up the remains of a Black child and call them ‘juicy’ on camera?”