(Reuters) - Joe Paterno, the iconic head of Penn State University's football program for 46 years fired after former assistant Jerry Sandusky was charged with child sex abuse, said he was unsure of how to deal with the first report about Sandusky that reached him in 2002.

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it, and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," Paterno told the Washington Post.

"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."

He was referring to a report he received from a young assistant coach, Mike McQueary, who said he had seen Sandusky abusing a boy in a Penn State locker room shower.

Paterno's decision to tell college officials and not police about the 2002 incident involving Sandusky was the basis for his dismissal by the Penn State Board of Trustees' on November 9. Also fired was university president Graham Spanier.

The former coach made his comments in an interview with Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins published on the paper's website on Saturday afternoon. They were his first extensive public statements since being dismissed by the university in November.

Paterno, 85, was admitted to a hospital in State College on Friday because of complications from cancer treatments. Jenkins interviewed Paterno at his home this week.

Paterno told the Post he was initially reluctant to speak. "I wanted everybody to settle down," he said.

News of his firing on November 9 sparked rioting in State College where Penn State is located.

Sandusky, 67, faces 52 charges stemming from accusations by 10 men who say he molested them as juveniles over a 15-year period. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and no date has been set for his trial. He is under house arrest.

A member of the College Hall of Fame, Paterno was head coach of the Nittany Lions for 46 years. With 409 victories at Penn State, he won more games in Division 1 college football than any other coach in the sport's history.

Penn State hired New England Patriots assistant coach Bill O'Brien to replace Paterno as head coach a week ago.

Paterno was admitted to a State College hospital on Friday for observation due to minor complications resulting from his treatment for lung cancer, which was diagnosed two months ago. A family spokesman said Saturday afternoon that his condition had improved.

(Reporting By Mark Shade; editing by Dan Burns, Ian Simpson and Alex Dobuzinskis)

Mochila insert follows