LOS ANGELES, California - The puppeteer behind Elmo on "Sesame Street" said Monday he was taking time out from the US children's TV show to fight a "defamatory" claim he had a sexual relationship with an underage boy.
Kevin Clash, the man behind the furry red character's high-pitched voice and frenetic gestures, admitted he had a relationship with his accuser, who claims he was 16 years old when they started dating, according to studio officials.
But Clash said the accuser was not under the age of consent, which is 17 in New York, where the show is made.
"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. I had a relationship with the accuser," said Clash, in a statement forwarded to AFP by publicist Risa Heller.
"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."
Sesame Workshop, the studio behind the legendary show, said it was contacted by a man who claimed to have had a relationship with Clash seven years ago, when he was 16. Clash was reportedly 45 at the time.
"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," it said.
"We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action," it added, noting it had interviewed both the accuser and Clash about the claims.
"We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated," it said.
"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 these allegations are false and defamatory and he has taken actions to protect his reputation. We have granted him a leave of absence to do so."
The studio insisted the claim would not have an impact on the show, or the character, saying: "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."
The story is the second involving "Sesame Street" to make headlines in recent months after fellow character Big Bird became embroiled in the US presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney vowed to end public subsidies for the program.
Republican Romney, who was much lampooned for his Big Bird comment during a debate with Democratic President Barack Obama, lost the election on November 6.
The program, which first appeared on public television in November 1969, teaches children the basics of reading, writing and counting.
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