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Coach admits he backed away from sex scandal

Ailing college sports giant Joe Paterno breaks his silence in bid to restore his shattered reputation

Just a few months ago he was one of the most successful and beloved names in college sport, but now a sick and frail Joe Paterno is fighting to restore his reputation after the sex abuse scandal that engulfed his team and his legacy.

The former Penn State University football coach has broken his silence about the events that led to his dismissal last year, when a long-time assistant was charged with molesting boys over at least a 15-year period.

Mr Paterno, it emerged, had been told of one incident in 2002, when Jerry Sandusky was seen allegedly raping a boy in the locker room shower, and while he reported the accusation to his superiors at the university, he failed to report it to the police.

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardise what the university procedure was," Mr Paterno said, in a mea culpa of sorts, days before his university bosses make their first appearance in court over the alleged cover-up.

"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."

Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and university finance official Gary Schultz are accused of perjury and failing to report the incident to police. Mr Paterno is not under any threat of criminal action, having discharged his legal duties by reporting the incident, but he has not been shielded from a public outcry over how Mr Sandusky was able to continue his alleged abuse for several more years after 2002. He was dismissed, along with the university's president, in November.

It was a stark end to a 61-year career at the university, 46 years as head coach, during which time football became the institution's biggest money-spinner and Mr Paterno became its public face and most significant powerbroker. His firing provoked riots on campus from student loyalists angry at his treatment.

In his first interview since then, conducted last week by The Washington Post's sports columnist Sally Jenkins, the 85-year-old avoided expressions of bitterness over his treatment, though he recounted the night an assistant coach arrived at his home and wordlessly delivered a note demanding he call the university. Still in his pyjamas, he was fired over the phone.

A picture of an old man out of his depth, the interview reveals how Mr Paterno is now weak from lung cancer diagnosed shortly after his sacking, wearing a wig because he has lost his hair from chemotherapy and too sick to get out of a wheelchair. He was taken to hospital over the weekend.

If Mr Sandusky is eventually found guilty, he told Ms Jenkins, "I'm sick about it." Mr Sandusky is charged with 40 counts of sexual assault, half of which are alleged to have occurred while he was an employee of Penn State.

Most of the boys were beneficiaries of his charity for underprivileged children. Mr Sandusky has admitted showering with boys and engaging in "horseplay", though he denies being a paedophile and refutes the charges.