May 24, 2022 - News

Former Penn curator sues news outlets over coverage of her handling of MOVE victim remains

Aerial view of smoke rising from smoldering rubble where some 60 homes
The 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia . Photo: Bettman/Getty Images

Former Penn Museum curator-in-charge Janet Monge is suing the University of Pennsylvania, various media outlets, the Association of Black Anthropologists and the Society of Black Archaeologists over "false" and "defamatory" reports of her alleged mishandling of a 1985 MOVE bombing victim's remains.

Driving the news: Monge, an anthropologist, filed the lawsuit Friday against more than 30 defendants, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Billy Penn.

  • Monge says she suffered harm to her reputation and was demoted from her position after Billy Penn and other outlets published articles last year claiming that she and her colleague Alan Mann had kept the remains of a MOVE bombing victim and that she used them in an online course.

Catch up fast: The city of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a West Philadelphia home on Osage Avenue, where members of a Black liberation group known as MOVE lived, in 1985. Six adults and five children were killed.

  • The city medical examiner gave Mann children's bones after the bombing to identify them. He wasn't able to, but the remains weren't returned to the city.
  • Last May, the city revealed its discovery that in 2017, former Philadelphia health commissioner Thomas Farley ordered a separate set of MOVE bombing victims' remains to be cremated without notifying family members. The order was never carried out.

Between the lines: A Tucker Law group report examined how the remains from the 1985 bombing resulted in Penn's custody and were used in a 2019 online course.

  • The group wrote that Monge and Mann did not "violate any professional, ethical or legal standards," but "demonstrated at a minimum, poor judgment and insensitivity."

What she's saying: In the complaint, Monge alleges she spent 36 years trying to identify the bone fragments of the remains.

  • She alleges that "defamatory" media reports were initiated by her former colleagues, University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate Paul Mitchell and anthropology professor Deborah Thomas, in part in retaliation for Monge reporting Mitchell for "unprofessional conduct."
  • Monge also claims Mitchell falsified information to his "then-girlfriend" Maya Kassutto, who wrote one of the initial reports for Billy Penn before the story was picked up by multiple local and national outlets.
  • Monge's lawyer, Alan Epstein, declined to comment further, saying "the complaint speaks for itself."

Context: Both Billy Penn and the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story on the same day last spring.

  • Kassutto previously worked at Penn Museum and was an intern in the physical anthropology section.

The response: Mitchell said in a statement to Axios, "claims, including those about me, which form the basis of Dr. Monge's complaint are substantially and demonstrably false."

  • Kassutto, the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY (the entity that owns Billy Penn) and Penn Museum declined to comment. Thomas didn't return Axios' request for comment.
  • Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, who wrote the Inquirer story, told Axios the media reports, including their own, were not mischaracterized and that their source was not Mitchell.
  • "I think it's to intimidate and scare people who have been involved in the reporting, and I don't think it has merit," Muhammad told Axios of Monge's lawsuit.

Editor's note: Axios Philadelphia reporter Taylor Allen has previously worked at WHYY.

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