For the Love of God, Please Don’t Be a Child Molester

How Elmo’s nearly tarnished reputation pushed us closer to a world without heroes.

“Oh thank goodness!! And thus ends the worst 24 hours of my life,” my  friend Lauren wrote on Facebook on Tuesday night. She attached a link to this story clearing the name of Kevin Clash, who is best known as the voice of Elmo. This week, Clash was accused of having sex with an underage boy.

Lauren’s reaction might’ve been hyperbolic, but she wasn’t the only one exclaiming with relief when Clash’s accuser recanted. For the 24 hours that we had to ponder his guilt, the world felt a little more hopeless. To ponder the possibility that even our beloved pals on Sesame Street could fall from grace in such a reprehensible way seemed too much to bear. One friend remarked that the last 365 days have felt like “the year of the pedophile.”

It’s not hard to see why.

Let’s recap: Beginning in late 2011, the world was rocked by the nauseating Jerry Sandusky case, which is ongoing thanks to the recent arraignment of former Penn State president Graham Spanier, who allegedly helped cover up Sandusky’s crimes. Happy Valley is still doused in images of the late Joe Paterno, whose name was shamed as more details about Sandusky emerged. In December 2011, there were accusations of child molestation against acclaimed Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin. One of the accusers was his niece. Also in Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn was sentenced to time in prison for his role in covering up the wretched child abuse that come out of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Across the Atlantic, British TV star Jimmy Savile (who died last year) is facing mounting accusations of pedophilia.

It’s always heartbreaking to read about child sexual abuse, but when the attacker—or an accomplice—is someone we collectively thought of as a role model, the feeling becomes worse somehow. We like to think of predators as evil-looking monsters who prey on children and other innocents. It’s better if they are faceless, unrecognizable beasts with whom we have no connection. When it seemed that even Elmo—perhaps the most iconic symbol of childhood since Howdy Doody—could somehow be wrapped up in this kind of gut-punching tragedy, it felt like the last universal hero had been stolen away. If Sesame Street isn’t safe, there truly must be no good left in the world.

I am relieved that Elmo and Clash’s names have been cleared, and hope with an honest heart that we never get another whiff of pedophilia anywhere near Sesame Street. But while thinking about how few heroes we have left in the world, I pondered how I’d feel if other big-name do-gooders suddenly had tarnished reputations. After all, adored cancer survivor and athlete Lance Armstrong recently dropped a few notches on the admiration scale after it was—finally—confirmed that he doped his way through the Tour de France. It feels, these days, as if heroes are as fleeting as pop stars.

What if it were Julie Andrews? Or Ira Glass? Or—I almost can’t bear to type it— Tom Hanks? What if we suddenly learned something horrible about Nelson Mandela? Or Barbara Walters. I think the outrage would, like Elmo’s near-brush with infamy, hit a nerve in our society. It would make us question who is deserving of our trust and respect. As the last days of 2012 tick away, I hope not to lose any more of my role models. Who knows what shame 2013 will bring?