Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Sitting in a Pennsylvania courtroom last month, listening to how allegations of child molestation were handled by one of the nation's top college football programs, observers might have thought back on that old party game, Telephone.
Remember how the game works? A story gets passed down the line, told and retold until the tale that reaches the end bears little resemblance to the original.
In this case, the story began with an assistant coach at Penn State, Mike McQueary, who testified that nearly 10 years ago he walked in on former coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the football team's locker room showers. McQueary, who was a graduate assistant at the time, said he had no doubt that he witnessed "severe sexual acts" that were wrong and "over the lines."
Yet, as a transcript shows, each time McQueary's story was told it became less specific, until others at the end of the line reacted as if what he had seen was no big deal.
It will be up to the courts to sort out whether McQueary pulled punches in telling the story, whether the others lied, or whether they heard only what they wanted to hear.
"This is what happens in sexual abuse cases all the time," observed Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches legal ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Witnesses are embarrassed to describe in graphic terms what they saw and then it becomes a game of Telephone after that, as one witness changes the story a little before talking to the next witness."
Along with two other experts, Levenson read and analyzed the transcript of a December 16 preliminary hearing in a perjury case against two university officials. The experts' conclusion: Euphemism and squeamishness over certain sexually explicit words and the emotions they conjure played a role in weakening the impact of McQueary's story.
Levenson lent her expertise on the law. CNN also consulted a psychologist and an authority on writing and language. Dr. Chuck Williams, an education professor at Drexel University, specializes in the psychology of large organizations and advises Philadelphia's foster care system. Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida, has studied for decades how people use words.
Of course, the suspected sexual abuse of a child is no topic for a party game. At least 10 young men say they were victimized by Sandusky as boys.
Sandusky, a retired defensive coordinator, has been charged with more than 50 counts. He just turned 68 and if convicted could spend the rest of his life in prison. He denies the allegations.
Two university officials, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, have been charged with failing to report the suspected sexual abuse and with lying about it to a grand jury. McQueary testified at their preliminary hearing, but they did not. Instead, their grand jury testimony was read into the record. The two men have pleaded not guilty to perjury and related charges, and the case is headed to trial.
The scandal also tarnished the legend of the most winning coach in Division 1 college football. Joe Paterno, who died last weekend at age 85, was the first Penn State official McQueary told, and he passed the information along to Curley and Schultz. When news of the scandal broke, Paterno was criticized for not doing enough and was fired. "I should have done more," he acknowledged.
Also in the aftermath, University President Graham Spanier was forced out and McQueary, who received death threats after Paterno's ouster, was placed on leave. Curley also is on leave and Schultz retired.
For Penn State, the stakes are huge. Its football program ranked sixth in revenue among college teams during the 2010 season, bringing in $72.7 million, according to CNNMoney.
It took nearly a decade to reach this point, but prosecutors charge that Sandusky had been molesting boys since at least 1994. As the molestation and perjury cases head to trial, each word will be parsed for every possible nuance, as Schultz's lawyer pointed out at the preliminary hearing.
"All of us participating in this proceeding today understand that words have meaning," attorney Thomas Farrell said. "And in the law, words are extremely important. Perjury is a difficult crime to prove. And so we need to have precision in the language."
"The words matter," said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, which is prosecuting the perjury case. "Words matter to the grand jury, words matter to us, words matter to the public, and words matter to the court."
He declined to discuss specifics of the testimony, but pointed out, "The story is still in the process of being told."
At the preliminary hearing for Curley and Schultz, McQueary testified that he told them that he saw Sandusky in the showers with a boy who appeared to be about 10 years old.
"There's no question in my mind that I conveyed to them that I saw Jerry with a boy in the shower and that it was severe sexual acts going on and that it was wrong and over the line," he testified. CNN was unable to reach McQueary by telephone.
Paterno recognized the sexual nature of what McQueary saw, but seemed to struggle with how to describe it to Curley and Schultz, according to his grand jury testimony.
But Curley and Schultz told the grand jury neither McQueary nor Paterno was so specific with them. The 62-year-old Schultz, a university vice president who then oversaw the campus police, said he and Curley, the athletic director, "had no indication that a crime had occurred," and so police were never called. Nor did any of the men try to identify or locate the boy.
As the testimony revealed, McQueary's message was watered down with each telling until it became mere locker room "horsing around" and "not serious."
Sandusky's molestation trial will focus on his actions. But for the two men charged with perjury, words hold the key.
'Macho men lose their voice'
Did McQueary, as he told his story, leave an opening for the others to look the other way? That will be a central question in the trials to come.
"Sodomy, rape and anal intercourse are not easy words for men, especially jocks, to verbalize, and they may become particularly reluctant when they are speaking to authority figures," Levenson said. Williams agreed. "Being uncomfortable with the subject matter could have led all men involved to minimize the Sandusky mess and avoid confronting it head on," he said.
It also may have led them to hear what they wanted to hear, and disregard the full truth of what was being said.
Indeed, there is a world of difference between the way men talk in the locker room and how they might speak in a courtroom, added Clark.
"As soon as the setting becomes serious the macho men lose their voice."
McQueary, who is 37, has invested half his life in Penn State's football program, and looked up to the others, the experts pointed out. It was like revealing a shocking family secret.
In sex abuse cases involving families, the victim -- and the messenger -- often are disbelieved or sacrificed to keep the family's reputation intact, said Williams, the psychologist.
Experts, including the American Psychological Association, have found that there is no link between sexual orientation and the sexual abuse of children. But because Sandusky's alleged victim was a boy, some at Penn State may have seen the abuse as related to homosexuality, the last taboo of the macho jock culture.
"Discussing sex is not an issue for men. ... We probably talk about that more than anything else," Williams said. "However, homosexuality is definitely a nonstarter in male-dominated culture, which colored how the men involved responded to the incident."
To understand how McQueary's story lost its urgency, it is helpful to follow it along the line as it was repeated to one person after another, the experts advised. The hearing transcripts provide the most reliable record, but that record is incomplete. Prosecutors have yet to reveal what McQueary told the grand jury -- and how he said it. And with Paterno's death, his official version of the story stopped at the grand jury hearing on January 12, 2011.
McQueary left little doubt last month about what he saw and heard as he walked into the locker room shortly after 9 p.m. on the Friday night before the 2002 spring break. The showers were running and he thought that was odd, and then he heard other sounds that prompted him to glance into a mirror with a 45-degree view into the showers.
"I heard rhythmic slapping sounds, two or three slaps that you would hear, skin on skin," he said, adding that he was "somewhat embarrassed," because it sounded like someone was having sex.
"I looked in the mirror and shockingly and surprisingly saw Jerry with a boy in the shower. And it appeared that Jerry was directly behind the boy and the boy was up against the wall with his hands up against the wall," he testified. "And Jerry was directly behind him in a very, very close position with Jerry's hands wrapped around his waist or midsection. I couldn't see his hands actually, but his arms were wrapped around" the boy's waist.
McQueary looked away, and then glanced again into the mirror. "Upon looking a second time, I said to myself, 'They're in a very sexual-oriented, a very sexual position,'" he recalled for the court. "I believed Jerry was sexually molesting him and having some type of intercourse with him."
He slammed his locker door, and walked toward the showers for a third look. By that time, the two had separated and stood about four feet apart, facing him. They made eye contact, McQueary testified, but beyond that he could offer little more in the way of description. His discomfort with the subject matter became obvious:
"I didn't sit there and stare," he said, later adding, "I don't look and stare down there." He estimated the whole encounter lasted six or seven minutes.
The next morning, McQueary told Paterno what he'd seen. By his own admission, his language was not as explicit.
"I went over to his house and sat at his kitchen table and told him that I had seen Jerry Sandusky with a young boy in the shower and that it was way over the lines," McQueary testified. "It was extremely sexual in nature and I thought I needed to tell him about it."
He said he didn't go into great detail with the coach, explaining why under questioning by prosecutor Bruce Beemer:
"Would you ever have used the word sodomy with Coach Paterno?" the prosecutor asked.
"No, never," McQueary said.
"Would you ever have used the term anal intercourse with Coach Paterno?"
"Out of respect and just not getting into detail with someone like Coach Paterno. I would not have done it."
Paterno was "shocked and saddened," McQueary recalled, and "kind of slumped back in his chair."
"Well, I'm sorry you had to see that. It's terrible," he said Paterno told him.
Clark, the Poynter Institute's writing scholar, said people often resort to euphemism when they talk about sex. They also tend to be more circumspect when speaking with authority figures.
"We adjust our language based on the audience," Clark said. "If you're talking to an old Italian football coach who is kind of a godlike presence on the campus, you may decide to pull your punches."
Paterno's grand jury testimony lasted just seven minutes. His discomfort in discussing the sexual allegations is evident in the transcript. Asked to describe what McQueary had told him, Paterno responded with an awkward verbal squirm:
"He had seen a person, an older, not an older but a mature person who was fondling, whatever you might call it, I'm not sure what the term would be -- a young boy," he said.
"You used the term fondling," a prosecutor asked. "Is that the term you used?"
Paterno responded, "Well, I don't know what you would call it. Obviously he was doing something with the youngster. It was a sexual nature. I'm not sure exactly what it was."
He added, "I didn't push Mike to describe exactly what it was because he was very upset."
McQueary could say only that he "might have" used the term "fondling" with Paterno; he couldn't be sure. But what he saw in the showers went far beyond that.
After thinking on it overnight, Paterno took McQueary's report to his boss, Curley, saying, "Hey, we got a problem." Curley also brought in his boss, Schultz. Their accounts vary on when and where they met, but McQueary testified that he heard nothing for nine or 10 days, and then met with Curley and Schultz.
The story breaks down
By the time the last two men in the Telephone line became involved, McQueary's story already was losing impact. Sexual abuse of a child in the shower had become "fondling." It wasn't a huge leap for that description to be watered down into harmless "horsing around."
McQueary insisted he made it very clear to Curley and Schultz that what he saw was "extremely sexual," as he phrased it.
Curley and Schultz maintained that while McQueary described "inappropriate" behavior, what they heard didn't rise to the level of crime.
"I was not aware that there was sexual activity," Curley insisted. "I didn't think it was a crime at the time."
"I don't remember any report to me that it was sexual in nature," Schultz testified. "It was inappropriate behavior."
The grand jury believed McQueary. It did not believe Curley and Schultz, and prosecutors charged them with perjury.
Failing to report suspicions of child abuse is a relatively minor offense in Pennsylvania, the equivalent of a traffic ticket. But perjury is more serious, a third-degree felony, involving false statement of a material fact made under oath. It carries a maximum sentence of up to seven years in prison.
Curley spoke of being told of "horsing around" in the showers, and seemed more concerned that Sandusky would be bringing in unauthorized visitors. Schultz said the reported activity was "possibly sexual" and definitely "inappropriate" but "not serious."
McQueary displayed a noticeable verbal tic as he testified at the preliminary hearing about his conversation with the two men.
Prosecutor Beemer asked McQueary a series of direct questions about how he spoke to Curley and Schultz. McQueary responded to each one with a more passive "would have."
Q: "Did you describe for Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz the body positioning of the individuals in the shower?"
A: "Yes, I would have given them a rough idea, yes." He continued, "I would have said Jerry was in there in a very close proximity behind a young boy with his arms wrapped around him."
Asked whether he described what he heard, he again responded: "I would have said I heard slapping sounds. I did say that."
Asked whether he told them if Sandusky and the boy had clothes on, McQueary replied, "I would have made it clear they were in the shower and they were naked."
And, finally, he was asked if he clearly described the activity he witnessed as sexual.
"I would have described that it was extremely sexual and that I thought that some kind of intercourse was going on," McQueary testified.
The switch in verb tense signaled that McQueary was less certain about what he was saying, Clark said, perhaps in part because the setting was more adversarial: The two men whose versions of the story he was contradicting were sitting right in front of him, charged with criminal offenses.
They had been authority figures, Clark added, and facing them probably rattled McQueary, who had not yet made the permanent coaching staff when he saw Sandusky in the shower with a boy.
McQueary acknowledged that he did not give Curley and Schultz the graphic details. The transcripts reveal that they did not push for details either, relying for the most part on what Paterno had told them at the previous meeting.
That left room for different interpretations, said Levenson, the law professor. McQueary testified he couldn't be sure whether there was penetration, "so it leaves it free for others to characterize it as 'horseplay' or 'wrestling,'" Levenson said.
The description of the alleged shower encounter as horseplay -- specifically the words "horsing around" -- could become a major issue at trial. How that term entered the conversation already has been the focus of prosecutor Beemer's questions to McQueary's father.
John McQueary testified that his son would not have used those words. "That's an archaic term that my dad would have said to me. I don't think I would have used it, and haven't used it, and I don't think Mike knows it."
And yet, the term keeps surfacing in this case. Sandusky used it in a television interview with NBC's Bob Costas in November, just days after Sandusky's arrest.
Curley, who is 57, had used the words earlier in the year, when he testified before the grand jury.
He said McQueary told him the people in the shower "were horsing around, that they were being playful and it just didn't feel appropriate." A few minutes later, he added, "My recollection was that they were kind of wrestling, there was body contact and they were horsing around."
Curley testified that he spoke with Sandusky after first talking with McQueary. Initially, he said, Sandusky denied being in the team's facilities that night, but acknowledged a couple of days later that he had been there. Curley was not asked for a more detailed description of what Sandusky told him.
Those two conversations between Curley and Sandusky -- which occurred years before Curley's testimony before the grand jury -- leave open the possibility that Sandusky offered the term "horsing around" as his explanation, as he did after his arrest. Curley, in turn, might have then introduced the term to the grand jury.
And that scenario raises an intriguing question: Was the defendant himself, Jerry Sandusky, an unseen party on the Telephone line?
This story was changed to include the American Psychological Association's position that there is no link between sexual orientation and child sexual abuse.
CNN's Wayne Drash contributed to this story.