Kevin Clash Scandal: Cash Further Muddies Water
Settlement talks threaten the fight against child sex abuse -- or clearing the accused
That about sums up most reaction to the underage sex allegations against "Sesame Street" puppeteer Kevin Clash, who on Tuesday amid growing scandal, announced he was resigning, after decades as the voice of the beloved Muppet.
The few available details surrounding the 52-year-old Clash’s alleged relationship with at least one of his now two young male accusers, and a supposed settlement for that accuser’s silence, indicate that this is yet another case of “powerful public figure” versus “troubled victim.”
Michael Jackson versus disadvantaged boys. Bishop Eddie Long versus his juvenile “fellows.” And now Clash versus his accusers, 24-year-old aspiring model and alleged armed robber Sheldon Stephens and 30-something Cecil Singleton, both alleging they had sex with Clash at ages 16 and 15, respectively.
In all of these types of cases, the truth was and is certain to be hard to prove. And news of financial settlements in each of the earlier cases only perpetuated public doubt that the accusers were telling the complete truth -- and that their rich and influential alleged abusers did not indeed have something to hide. It seems, at least morally, when it comes to high profile sex-related scandals, justice for sex abuse victims is far less important than swift civil settlements and protection of the brands – a music career, a church ministry or a beloved children’s program.
This is by no means a wholesale indictment of the above-mentioned accusers or the accused. But financial settlements seem to insinuate that neither side is willing to stand firm on the complete truth. And not being completely honest from the beginning seems to hurt both sides. And for victims of child sexual abuse, the truth -- and issues surrounding the telling of it -- can be a complicated thing.
“The problem is you can get a check as big the world, but there’s no place to cash it and get your childhood back,” said Curtis St. John, a spokesman for MaleSurvivor.org, a group dedicated to helping male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
St. John, a survivor himself, says victims aren’t simply susceptible to lawyers beckoning them to the often-lucrative negotiating table. He believes the public gets the wrong message in cases where there is a settlement, because too little is understood about the healing process for victims.
“Survivors are desperate to be believed,” St. John said in a phone interview. “People who are early in their recovery definitely want something to hold on to. Money makes you feel better at first, but it’s not going to solve your problem.”
Statistically, male survivors of sexual abuse so rarely come forward and if they do, they come forward later in their lives. That appears to be the case for Clash’s accusers.
Last week, Stephens made public accusations that Clash has started a sexual relationship with him when he was just 16. The celebrated puppeteer, who acknowledged for the first time publicly that he was gay, said the relationship was one between two consenting adults. He went on a leave of absence from "Sesame Street," with the expressed purpose to fight Stephens’ charge. Twenty-four hours later, Stephens recanted the underage part of his story, reportedly as part of a $125,000 settlement, and as details emerged about what was reported to be a checkered criminal past.
Then, on Monday, Stephens recanted again, claiming he was coerced into accepting a settlement and seeking to return the compensation for the right to tell his story. Tuesday, Clash resigned from "Sesame Street," but only after Singleton, the second accuser, came forward alleging a sexual relationship at age 15, after the two met on a gay phone sex line in 1993, according to a statement from Singleton’s lawyer. (Clash did not respond to the second accuser’s allegations.)
A federal lawsuit was filed on Tuesday against Clash on behalf of Singleton, who chose to speak out to “spare the lives of others like him and begin his own healing process,” his attorney Jeff Herman said in a statement.
Calls for comment from Stephens’s lawyer, Andreozzi & Associates, P.C., were not immediately returned.
Sesame Workshop released a statement on Tuesday calling the matter a “distraction that none of us want” and added that Clash’s departure was a “sad day for Sesame Street.”
Advocates for accurate reporting of criminal justice say the legal system often benefits those who can mount the most expensive defense.
“If you don’t have money, you’re pretty much stuck,” said Stephen Handelman, director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “[How settlements come about is] less of a morality question and more a functional question.”
For lawyers, it can be as simple as knowing how these cases tend to shake out, given the circumstances. According to the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, lawyers judging the value of a civil case, where a settlement is possible, “naturally look for information concerning the past resolution of similar disputes.”
Whichever way it shakes out for Clash’s accusers, it would be a shame if the takeaway message were his accusers aren’t being completely truthful about their involvement with Clash. Conversely, it also would be a shame if Clash ended his career because he saw no certain way to potentially clear his name of very damaging allegations.