Update on Nov. 13 at 5:43 p.m. ET. The man who accused Kevin Clash of having sex with him while he was underage has recanted his testimony. We've added a separate blog with the details.
Our Original Post Continues:
Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who brings life to Elmo, is on a leave of absence to confront what he says are "false and defamatory" allegations. They come from a young man who says the two of them had a relationship that started when the unnamed individual was 16, Sesame Workshop announced today.
In a statement, the organization says:
"In June of this year, Sesame Workshop received a communication from a then 23 year old man who alleged that he had a relationship beginning when he was 16 years old with Kevin Clash, a Sesame Workshop puppeteer who performs as Elmo.
"We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action. We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communications with him. We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated. Although this was a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace, our investigation did reveal that Kevin exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding internet usage and he was disciplined.
"Kevin insists that the allegation of underage conduct is false and defamatory and he is taking actions to protect his reputation. We have granted him a leave of absence to do so."
TMZ.com reports that Clash told its correspondent: "I had a relationship with [the accuser]. It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to make it into something it was not."
The Elmo character will not go on hiatus. "Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years," Sesame Workshop says.
Clash, 52, "has played Elmo for more than two decades," The New York Times adds. In late 2011, while promoting the documentary Being Elmo, he told WHYY's Fresh Air that when children visit the Sesame Street set, "they run to Elmo because it's a friend of theirs that they've been talking to and communicating with and singing with for so many years. ... I get humbled by it all the time."
He told Tell Me More that children connect with Elmo because "because he is them. He has that same personality that, you know, where he wants hugs, he wants kisses, you know. He wants to be acknowledged all the time, like a child does."
Clash also spoke with Tell Me More's Michel Martin about his now-teenage daughter and the email he once got from her asking that he spend more time with her:
MARTIN: She's a teenager. She's off to college now, so, yeah.
CLASH: Definitely. Now my ex-wife and I, we're like, you know, we can't believe how, you know, how amazing this child is. She's amazing.
MARTIN: But the reason I bring this up, in part, is that the film does make the point — it's actually kind of a poignant point - that you're on the road so much being Elmo, and giving love to other people's kids ...
MARTIN: ... that there were times which you felt like you were neglecting your own.
CLASH: Oh totally. Totally. You know, and that's the challenges that we have, you know, in this day and age where everybody has to get out and work. And it is, it does take away from our children. You know, so we, what Shannon and I always tried to do is, maybe we didn't have as much of the quantity, but the time that we were together was always quality.
MARTIN: Did she ever feel jealous of Elmo 'cause he got to see you more than she did?
CLASH: No. We've talked about that and no, she — it was always exciting for her. You know, she, when I would go home, she would have printed out pictures of Elmo. And she would have me sign them for teachers and friends and stuff. So it never happened that way. It was just that she got older. She just, she saw that I was definitely not around a lot and she really, really needed some face time, face-to-face, just to spend, you know, with her dad. And she was so sweet. She even said to her mom, you know, should I send this, 'cause I don't want dad to be mad. And, of course, her mom said, of course, you should. And when she sent it, you know, we talked about it. It was emotional for ...
MARTIN: You mean, she sent a letter saying, I need to see you more?
CLASH: She actually emailed - she emailed it to me.
MARTIN: She emailed you. OK.
CLASH: Yeah, she sent an email and boy, that - you know, that hit.
CLASH: Hit, hit, hit. And everything after that was having conversations with my personal assistant as far as, these days are off; you know, can't schedule anything here and there and there, and I'm going home. Bye-bye. I'm going to spend with Shannon, or Shannon is coming up to New York.
Update at 10 a.m. Nov. 13. Clash Confirms He's Gay; Says It Was A Relationship Between "Two Consenting Adults":
"I am a gay man. I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter," Clash, 52, tells PEOPLE in a statement via his personal rep.
"I had a relationship with the accuser," his statement continues. "It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to characterize it as something other than what it was. I am taking a break from Sesame Workshop to deal with this false and defamatory allegation."