STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Joe Paterno sat in a wheelchair at the family kitchen table where he has eaten, prayed and argued for more than a half-century. All around him family members were shouting at each other, yet he was whispering. Lung cancer has robbed him of the breath to say all that he wants to about the scandal he still struggles to comprehend, and which ended his 61-year career as head football coach at Penn State University.
"I'm not 31 years old trying to prove something to anybody," he said. "I know where I am."
This is where he is: wracked by radiation and chemotherapy, in a wheelchair with a broken pelvis, and "shocked and saddened" as he struggles to explain a breakdown of devastating proportions. Jerry Sandusky, his former assistant coach at Penn State from 1969 to 1999, is charged with more than 50 counts of sexually abusing young boys over 15 years.
How Sandusky, 67, allegedly evaded detection by state child services, university administrators, teachers, parents, donors and Paterno himself, remains an open question. "I wish I knew," Paterno said. "I don't know the answer to that. It's hard." Almost as difficult for Paterno, 85, to answer is the question of why, after receiving a report in 2002 that Sandusky had abused a boy in the shower of Penn State's Lasch football building, and forwarding it to his superiors, he didn't follow up more aggressively.
"I didn't know exactly how to handle it, and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," he said. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."
Former athletic director Tim Curley and school vice president Gary Schultz face charges of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse, based on their inaction. They have pleaded innocent. Though not charged with a crime, Penn State president Graham Spanier was fired on Nov. 9.
Paterno is accused of no wrongdoing, and in fact authorities have said he fulfilled his legal obligations by reporting to his superiors. Nevertheless, the university board of trustees dismissed him with a late-night phone call four days after Sandusky's arrest. The firing provoked a riot on campus.
Over two separate conversations on Thursday and Friday, Paterno discussed his career and his actions relating to Sandusky.
This is Paterno's own account:
On a Saturday morning in 2002, an upset young assistant coach named Mike McQueary knocked on Paterno's door to tell him he had witnessed a shocking scene in the Penn State football building showers. Until that moment, Paterno said, he had "no inkling" that Sandusky might be a sexual deviant. By then Sandusky was a former employee, with whom Paterno had little to do. Although Sandusky had been his close associate and helped fashion Penn State defenses for three decades, their relationship was "professional, not social," as Paterno described it.
Paterno insists he was unaware of a 1998 police investigation into a report from a Second Mile mother that Sandusky had inappropriately touched her son in a shower. The inquiry ended when the local prosecutor declined to bring charges. "You know it wasn't like it was something everybody in the building knew about," Paterno said. "Nobody knew about it."
Paterno contends that ignorance was the context with which he heard McQueary's disturbing story in 2002. McQueary, sitting at Paterno's kitchen table, told him that he had been at the football building late the evening before when he heard noises coming from the shower.
"He was very upset and I said why, and he was very reluctant to get into it," Paterno said. "He told me what he saw, and I said, what? He said it, well, looked like inappropriate, or fondling, I'm not quite sure exactly how he put it. I said you did what you had to do. It's my job now to figure out what we want to do. So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors and I said, 'Hey, we got a problem, I think. Would you guys look into it?' Cause I didn't know, you know. We never had, until that point, 58 years I think, I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn't feel adequate."
At that point, Paterno set up a meeting for McQueary and Curley, the athletic director, and Schultz, who oversaw university police. McQueary has testified that he gave both men a far more graphic description of what he witnessed, which he believed to be Sandusky sodomizing a boy of about 10, who had his hands against the shower wall. At the preliminary hearing for Curley and Schultz on Dec. 16, McQueary said he had been reluctant to go into similar "great detail about sexual acts" with Paterno, out of respect for the coach, who was 78 at the time.
Schultz and Curley have maintained that McQueary failed to impart the seriousness of what he saw to them as well. They never told police about the allegation, instead informing Sandusky he could no longer bring children to university facilities. Prosecutors say Sandusky continued to abuse boys for six more years.
Paterno declined to judge Sandusky, or his other Penn State colleagues. "I think we got to wait and see what happens," he said. "The courts are taking care of it, the legal system is taking care of it."