LOS ANGELES (CNS) — A new program will allow victims of sex abuse by clergy in six Catholic dioceses in California, including Los Angeles and Orange, to seek financial compensation without going through the court system has begun accepting claims.

The participating dioceses — Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento and San Bernardino — first announced the effort in May, saying the compensation program is open to all clergy sex abuse victims, including people living in the country illegally and those who are barred from filing lawsuits because the abuse occurred long ago and is beyond the statute of limitations.

Organizers of the California Independent Compensation Program stressed that the effort is being operated independent from the church and is overseen by a three-person committee — former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Gov. Gray Davis and Maria Contreras-Sweet, former administrator of the US Small Business Administration.

“This important program is a necessary response to historic claims of child sexual abuse in the participating dioceses,” Panetta said Tuesday, Sept. 17.

“Today, it is required that every new claim of abuse must be reported to law enforcement which will lead to the prosecution of those who have abused children. Although the ICP will zealously protect the privacy of any confidential information voluntarily provided by victims to the administrators, victims are free to discuss their history of abuse and their experience with this program.”

The compensation program is being operated by administrators Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who run similar programs for dioceses in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Colorado.

According to organizers, the dioceses participating in the California Independent Compensation Program include more than 10 million Catholics, or roughly 80 percent of the state’s Catholic compensation.

Program organizers said participation in the program is completely voluntary and allows victims to file claims in a “non-adversarial” setting without the need to retain a lawyer. Details on the claim process are available on the program website, www.CaliforniaDiocesesICP.com.

SNAP, an organization that advocates on behalf of victims of clergy sex abuse, issued a statement in May critical of the gesture, suggesting victims should carefully examine their rights before taking part in the compensation program.

“We believe that the best way to expose wrongdoing and enforce accountability is for crimes to be made public and for punishment and compensation to be meted out by courts, not the institutions that allowed the wrongdoing to happen in the first place,” according to SNAP. “Survivors deserve a chance to have their day in court and shed light on their abuse, and that can only happen when statutes of limitations are reformed, civil windows are opened and bishops are held accountable in courts of law.”