(NBC News) -- Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind "Sesame Street's" Elmo since 1985, has taken a leave of absence from the show following allegations that he had a relationship with a 16-year-old, according to a statement from Sesame Workshop.
Workshop representatives said that in June a 23-year-old man reached out to Sesame Workshop alleging that he had a relationship with Clash beginning seven years earlier.
"We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action," said the reps in the statement. "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."
Clash is then said to have been granted leave from the show so he can take action "to protect his reputation."
"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 said in a statement to NBC News issued through a representative. "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."
Clash has performed with Sesame Street characters since 1979, when he played Cookie Monster in the "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." He became an official puppeteer on "Sesame Street" in 1984 and created character voices for puppets such as Baby Natasha and Dr. Nobel Price, but the marriage of Elmo and Clash's stylized high-pitched toddler voice caught fire once he began voicing the puppet in 1985. (Elmo had been a recurring puppet on the show since the early 1970s, but not a major player until Clash took over.)
Clash was the subject of a 2011 documentary, "Being Elmo," which documented his lifelong love of puppeteering.
"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," said Sesame Workshop.
There was no date given for Clash's return.