PHILADELPHIA - Philadelphia’s top health official was compelled to resign Thursday after the city’s mayor said he learned partial human remains from the 1985 bombing of the headquarters of a Black organization had been cremated and disposed of without notifying family members.
Mayor Jim Kenney said Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley made the decision regarding remains of the MOVE bombing victims several years ago.
The announcement of Farley’s ouster came by design on the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing, after Kenney consulted victims’ family members. Among the 11 slain when police bombed the organization’s headquarters, causing a fire that spread to more than 60 row homes, were five children.
"This action lacked empathy for the victims, their family, and the deep pain that the MOVE bombing has brought to our city for nearly four decades," Kenney wrote in a statement.
Kenney later said that he had a long and difficult meeting with victims’ family members and agreed to publicly disclose the matter on the bombing anniversary at their request.
"I wanted to ensure that the Africa family learned of this incident directly from me, and before the general public. Today, I had the opportunity to meet with members of the Africa family and apologize for the way this situation was handled, and for how the City has treated them for the last five decades. I also promised them full transparency into the outside review of this incident, as well as the handling — or mishandling — of all remains of every MOVE victim. The Team investigating this incident will include individuals specifically approved by the Africa family and we will make every effort to resolve this matter to MOVE’s satisfaction.
In a statement released by the mayor’s office, Farley said that in early 2017 he was told by the city’s medical examiner, Dr. Sam Gulino, that a box had been found containing materials related to MOVE bombing victims’ autopsies.
"In the box were bones and bone fragments, presumably from one or more of the victims," Farley said.
It is a standard procedure to retain specimens after an autopsy ends and the remains are turned over to the decedent’s next-of-kin, Farley said.
"Believing that investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years earlier, and not wanting to cause more anguish for the families of the victims, I authorized Dr. Gulino to follow this procedure and dispose of the bones and bone fragments," Farley said.
The decision was his alone, and other top city officials were not consulted, he said.
After recent reports that local institutions had remains of MOVE bombing victims, Farley said he reconsidered his actions and notified higher-ups. Kenney said Farley told him about what occurred late Tuesday, took responsibility and resigned from the $175,000-a-year job he’d held for five years.
"I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them," Farley wrote.
Gulino has also been put on leave pending an investigation, Kenney said.
Dr. Cheryl Bettigole has been appointed acting health commissioner.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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