Tickle Me, Elmo?

— Written by Elizabeth Yore

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For 28 years, Kevin Clash was the puppeteer and alter ego of the beloved Sesame Street character, Elmo.  Clash, 52, resigned this week after 3 young men stepped forward and alleged that they had sexual relations with Clash when they were minors. All claimed that they met Clash through a gay phone chat line when they were minors. Clash doesn’t deny that they had sex but claims that the accusers were consenting adults at the time of the sexual encounters.

 Last year, Clash soared to fame in the award winning documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey which won jury awards at Sundance and other film festivals. It appears that Kevin Clash may now be more concerned about another kind of jury award, a civil suit as a third young man filed suit alleging that Clash molested him when he was underage.

 Last week, Kevin Clash resigned from Sesame Street citing the allegations surrounding the lawsuits. Sesame Street issued the following statement upon Clash’s retirement:

             “None of us, especially Kevin, want anything to divert our attention from our focus on serving as a leading educational organization,…Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin’s personal life has become a distraction that none of us want, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has  resigned from ‘Sesame Street. This is a sad day for ‘Sesame Street.”

A distraction? Can you imagine if the Catholic Church used such a benign word in a press release when it announced that a priest who had been accused of sex with 3 underage boys was resigning from ministry? The media would have been rightly outraged that the abuse was minimized by the Catholic Church.

Conversely, when allegations surface against one of their own, the media heaps praise, gratitude and diverts attention from the heinous conduct. Nonjudgmental sadness and silence is afforded one of their media stars when allegations of sexual predation surface. This press release is especially curious since it has been reported that Clash was disciplined by Sesame Street for using a work computer to send explicit sexual emails to one of the men.

Let’s look at this scandal with child protection eyes: One of the premier stars in the Children’s Television Workshop is allegedly trolling gay chat lines and having sex with underage boys. According to the lawsuits, Clash was nearly 30 years older than the underage boys that he solicited and groomed for sex. Sesame Street also had disciplined Clash for inappropriate use of his work computer to exchange sexual messages with one of the victims. Kevin Clash, along with his puppet is the hero and role model, adored by millions of children around the world. Yet, one of the lawsuits paints a much more sordid picture of Clash’s extracurricular activities:

           Kevin Clash was an unmarried adult male living a prominent life centered around entertaining toddlers, while at the same time, he was secretly preying on    teenage boys to satisfy his depraved sexual interests. Kevin Clash, the voice of     Elmo, trolled gay telephone chat line rooms to meet and have sex with underage boys.”

Does Sesame Street, PBS and the Children’s Television Workshop consider allegations of sex with a person under the age of 17 a mere distraction? Under NY law, sex with a person under the age of 17 is a felony, if the perpetrator is 21 years or older. Kevin Clash was decades older than these boys at the time of the alleged sexual abuse. Are there other minor boys who may have been victimized by Clash? Is there a criminal investigation pending? After all, as taxpayers who fund these programs we should be entitled to know the extent of the probe.

We have seen the double standard and blind eye when the media’s own is alleged to have engaged in serious misconduct with a child. Media stars generate millions for their networks. The Elmo craze extends far beyond the daily show’s popularity.

Elmo/Clash generates 1/2 to 2/3 of the $75 million in annual sales for the Sesame Street toy line for Hasbro.  Kevin Clash acknowledged that he was a millionaire. Elmo has been very good to him and to Sesame Street.

How long has Sesame Street known about allegations of Clash’s predilection for gay phone lines and trolling for sex with underage boys? With Elmo, as his constant companion and cover, Clash was nearly always in the presence of children on the television show and at countless worldwide appearances. Sesame Street’s fond farewell to Clash is very curious. Where is the outrage that an employee who was a symbol of love for millions of children around the world might be preying on underage children? What kind of message are they sending to children and families?

Why isn’t the so-called distraction, labeled a scandal? Why hasn’t Sesame Street issued a statement condemning the sexual abuse of all children under the age of 18?  Why hasn’t Sesame Street used this opportunity to reaffirm the protection of children from sexual abuse? Where are the editorials from the NY Times and other media outlets calling on Sesame Street and the Children’s Network Workshop to conduct thorough investigations into possible other victims of Clash? Are there other employees at Sesame Street with similar allegations?

It may be turn out that Elmo was doing more than tickling kids over the last 20 years. Let’s hope that a sex offender wasn’t living on Sesame Street.

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© Elizabeth Yore-2012 All Rights Reserved.

Elizabeth Yore is the former Special Counsel at Harpo, Inc.where she served as Oprah Winfrey’s Child Advocate. She was also the former General Counsel at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Yorechildren.com, twitter: @elizabethyore

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