Pope Francis wrapped up a monthlong meeting of bishops dedicated to young people by saying Saturday the Catholic Church was being "persecuted" and "dirtied" by accusations from the devil — an apparent reference to claims that he covered up for a sexual predator that have thrown his papacy into turmoil.

The Argentine pope made the comments to about 250 bishops, 30 young people and a handful of nuns who had just approved a 60-page final document at the close of a synod on how the church can better minister to today's youth.

The sex abuse scandal, as well welcoming gays into the church and giving women a greater say in decision-making, were major topics of debate during the synod and featured in the final document. Those issues were also the ones that received the most contested votes as bishops voted "placet" or "non placet" — yay or nay — on each of the 167 paragraphs.

While every paragraph passed with far more than the two-thirds vote necessary, one referencing "sexual inclinations" and the need to accompany gays received the most no votes, at 65. One calling for women to have a greater recognition and say in the church — and lamenting the "absence" of the female perspective — received 30 no votes.

No woman was allowed to cast a ballot at the meeting.

On abuse, the bishops stopped short of issuing a straight-forward communal apology for the decades of sex abuse and cover-up committed by priests and their superiors. While that section was entitled "Seek Pardon," the text voted on by bishops said merely that no amount of repentance can heal the trauma caused to victims. Thirty bishops voted against it.

Delegates have said that many bishops, particularly from Africa, rejected the emphasis placed on the abuse issue during the meeting, which unfolded as the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S., Chile and elsewhere is once again under fire for its botched handling of the scandal.

Francis himself has been drawn into the fray after a former Vatican ambassador accused him and a long line of Vatican officials before him of covering up for a now-disgraced ex-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick. Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation determined an accusation he molested a teen-age altar boy was credible.

In his concluding remarks to the synod, Francis appeared to be once again referring to the claims by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano that he had rehabilitated McCarrick from restrictions placed on him by the previous pope.

Francis acknowledged that there were sinners all around, but he insisted that the church itself was holy and must be protected from attacks and "another type of persecution: continuous accusations that seek to dirty the church."

Francis said the devil was behind the accusations and said now was the time to come to the defense of the church, which he referred to as "mother."

"It's a difficult moment because the accuser, through us, is attacking the mother," he said. "And you don't touch the mother."


Winfield reported from New York.