NEW YORK (AP) — The puppeteer who performs as Elmo on "Sesame Street" is taking a leave of absence from the popular kids' show in the wake of allegations that he had a relationship with a 16-year-old boy.
Sesame Workshop said puppeteer Kevin Clash denies the charges, which were first made in June by the alleged partner, who by then was 23.
"We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action," Sesame Workshop said in a statement issued Monday. "We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communications with him. We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation."
The organization described the relationship as personal and "unrelated to the workplace." Its investigation found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated. But it said Clash exercised "poor judgment" and was disciplined for violating company policy regarding Internet usage. It offered no details.
"I had a relationship with (the accuser)," Clash told TMZ. "It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to make it into something it was not."
At his request, Clash has been granted a leave of absence in order to "protect his reputation," Sesame Workshop said.
No further explanation was provided, nor was the duration of his leave specified.
"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 said in its statement.
"Sesame Street" is currently in production, but other puppeteers are prepared to fill in for Clash during his absence, according to a person close to the show who spoke on condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to publicly discuss details about the show's production.
"Elmo will still be a part of the shows being produced," that person said.
The 52-year-old Clash, the divorced father of a grown daughter, has been a puppeteer for "Sesame Street" since 1984. It was then that he was handed the fuzzy red puppet named Elmo and asked to come up with a voice for him. Clash transformed the character, which had been a marginal member of the Muppets troupe for a number of years, into a major star rivaling Big Bird as the face of "Sesame Street."
In 2006, Clash published an autobiography, "My Life as a Furry Red Monster," and was the subject of the 2011 documentary "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey."