The puppeteer who performs as Elmo on Sesame Street is taking a leave of absence from the popular children's show in the wake of allegations that he had a relationship with a 16-year-old boy, something the 52-year-old denies.

Kevin Clash, a puppeteer with Sesame Workshop based in New York, is at the centre of allegations first made in June by the accuser, 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 said 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 am deeply saddened'

On Tuesday, Clash issued a statement to CBC News through his publicist denying there was anything inappropriate to the relationship. 

"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," he said in the statement. "I had a relationship with the accuser. 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."

At his request, Clash has been granted a leave of absence 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.

Puppeteer with Sesame Street since 1984

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.

Clash has been a Sesame Street puppeteer since 1984, when 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.

With files from CBC News