Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Say It Ain’t So, Elmo!

Child sexual victimization can be found within all youth organizations.

Sadly, you likely have heard about the sexual accusations against Elmo, the charming and delightful Muppet on Sesame Street. The puppeteer who has played Elmo for many years, Kevin Clash, has been accused of engaging in sexual behavior with several underage youths. This comes on the heels of so many other similar scandals involving sacred and high esteem institutions such as the Boy Scouts, Penn State, the BBC, and the Catholic Church, among many others.

Tragically, the message is clear and the vast amount of quality research out there highlights that wherever you have adults and minors together, regardless of the type of institution where they meet or are associated with (e.g., church groups, schools, youth sports, scouts) a certain percentage of adults will violate this sacred trust and sexually engage with underage kids. It really doesn’t matter what the organization might be. Problems of sexual exploitation of youth are not confined to any particular group. If you dig or shed a light on the situation you will see that it occurs within every youth-based institution. No group is immune.

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The good news is that policies and procedures are now in place to keep kids much safer within these institutions. The Catholic Church, Penn State, the Boy Scouts, among others, have learned this lesson the hard way, but have aggressively made efforts to clean up their acts and ensure that children are safe within their ranks. In fact, children are probably safer in institutions such as the Catholic Church and Boy Scout in 2012 than any other youth-based organizations, churches, or schools.

Now to be fair and to be very clear, Elmo (i.e., Kevin Clash) has not been accused of sexually engaging in minors associated with the Sesame Street program. His accusations of problem behavior appear to have occured while he was off Elmo duty. It is just that his association with Sesame Street and PBS, highly thought of institutions, creates scandal and embarrassment for these institution. 

Tragically, sexual victimization of children happens in all organizations that serve youth. This seems to have been especially true during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, according to many research and criminal justice reports. The good news is that the incidence of these exploitations has decreased significantly in the past several decades (and especially since the mid-1980s) and that efforts have been made to maximize the odds that children are now safer within these organizations.

A confluence of factors such as education, mandatory reporting laws, scandals, media attention, victim advocacy groups, and changing cultural norms for sexual behavior and general behavior with children and teens have all contributed to a safer environment for youth. So, the controversy on Sesame Street will, at the end of the day, help make that street and others safer for kids. That is a good thing. The Elmo scandal is terrible for Kevin Clash, PBS, and Sesame Street, but in the end may be a good thing regarding efforts to keep kids safe from sexual exploitation within these organizations moving forward.

So, what do you think?

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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